A Southern Icon – Sweet Tea

w-12Sweet Tea, as we know, has always been considered a Southern icon. Simply a part of the fabric of Southern way of life that has always been… and is, a touchstone of our culture.

Sweet Tea appears at funerals and weddings, christenings and bridge games. It is the ultimate pick me up after a day of gardening, working in the fields, and long games of golf. It transcends generations and is never out of place, served in Grandmother’s delicate crystal in historic Southern mansions or in squatty mason jars in rickety roadhouses the South over.

We have all grown up with this quintessential Southern beverage, but do you know your tea facts?

True tea is made from the leaves of an Asian evergreen known as Camellia sinensis. White tea, green tea, oolong tea, and black tea all come from this plant, and all contain caffeine. How tea is actually prepared plays an important role in how much caffeine makes it into your cup. Everything, from the amount of tea used to water temperature and brewing time to whether the leaves are steeped loose, in a tea bag, or strainer, becomes a factor. In general, though, more tea, hotter water, and longer steeping all contribute to more caffeine per cup. An 8 oz cup of coffee contains 150-200 mg of caffeine. That same amount of Sweet Tea will weigh in with 60-90 mg of caffeine, just under half that of coffee.

Tea likely originated in China during the Shang Dynasty as a medicinal drink. It was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century. The British introduced it to India, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on the product.

During the colonial period in the United States, tea and tea taxes were a bone of contention between the American Colonies and Britain. This led to the Boston Tea Party, a precipitating event of the American Revolution, where angry Colonists destroyed the tea cargo of three British ships by dumping them into Boston Harbor.

South Carolina is the first place in the United States where tea was grown and is the only state to ever have produced tea commercially. Most historians agree that the first tea plant arrived in this country in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux (1746-1802), imported it, as well as other beautiful and showy varieties of camellias, gardenias and azaleas to suit the aesthetic and acquisitive desires of wealthy Charleston planters.

Tea consumption in the U.S. dropped dramatically after the Revolution as citizens looked for other beverages to replace tea, mainly coffee. Coffee is still the king of beverages in the United States, with only 1 in 5 people having tea as their morning beverage.

English and American cookbooks show us that tea has been served cold at least since the early nineteenth century, when cold green tea punches that were heavily spiked with liquor were popularized. The oldest recipes in print are made with green tea and not black tea and were called punches. The tea punches went by names such as Regent’s Punch, named after George IV, the English prince regent between 1811 until 1820, and king from 1820 to 1830.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, American versions of this punch begin to acquire regional and even patriotic names, such as Charleston’s St. Cecilia Punch (named for the musical society whose annual ball it graced), and Savannah’s potent version, Chatham Artillery Punch.

Iced tea’s popularity parallels the development of refrigeration: the icehouse, the icebox (refrigerator), and the commercial manufacture of pure ice, which were in place by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Tea contains L-theanine, and its consumption is strongly associated with a calm but alert and focused, relatively productive (alpha wave dominant), mental state in humans.

The first recipe that referred to tea was an alcoholic punch made in Kentucky. (Love those Kentuckians and their bourbons!) The 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, by Mrs. Lettice Bryanon, was typical of the American tea punch recipes:

“Tea Punch – Make a pint and a half of very strong tea in the usual manner; strain it, and pour it boiling (hot) on one pound and a quarter of loaf sugar. (That’s 2 1/2 cups white sugar) Add half a pint of rich sweet cream, and then stir in gradually a bottle of claret or of champagne. You may heat it to the boiling point, and serve it so, or you may send it round entirely cold, in glass cups.”

The oldest sweet tea recipe (ice tea) in print comes from a community cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree, published in 1879:

“Ice Tea. – After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinnertime, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.”

As the popularity of Southern cuisine trends high in the current foodie movement, Sweet Tea in all its glory is finding itself on center stage in hundreds of recipes, from flavoring vodkas to frozen delights.

The heat of Summer is finally upon us and you will find below a few note worthy ways to use that delicious concoction, that nectar of the gods, that simple yet transformative beverage we know and love ……. Sweet Tea.

Iced Tea

1 cup sugar, or less to taste

4 cups water

8 sprigs mint

8 small tea bags

½ cup fresh lemon juice

8 cups water, divided

Combine sugar and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer until sugar is dissolved. Pour over mint and tea bags. Let stand 10 minutes. Strain. Stir in lemon juice and 4 cups water. Refrigerate. Serve over ice with lemon slices and mint sprigs. Best made the day before serving.


Party Iced Tea

1 quart boiling water

7 regular size tea bags

12 stems mint

1 cup sugar

1 (12 ounce) can frozen lemonade concentrate

1 (12 ounce) can pineapple juice

In a pitcher, pour boiling water over tea bags, mint and sugar. Steep at least 30 minutes. Remove the bags and mint. Prepare lemonade as directed and add to the tea. Add pineapple juice. Let stand until cool.


Sweet Tea Granita

2/3 cup sugar

3  cups water

2 black tea bags, preferably English breakfast or other good-quality tea

Bring sugar and water to a boil. Add tea bags and steep for five minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Pour into an 8-by-8-inch baking dish (any shallow, freezer-proof dish will do); cover with plastic wrap and freeze.

After an hour, run a fork through the mixture to break up any large pieces of ice; return to the freezer. Repeat every 15 to 20 minutes until the consistency is fluffy and no large ice crystals remain, about two or three more times. Scoop into glasses and serve.

Granita may be made ahead and stored in a plastic-covered container in the freezer for up to three days. Fluff with a fork before serving.

For an Arnold Palmer variation: 
Reduce water to 2½ cups. Zest two lemons; then halve and juice. After steeping the tea bags, add lemon juice and zest and begin the freezing process as directed.

Recipe by Chef Andrea Litvin, The Spence, Atlanta, Georgia


Sweet Tea Vodka Recipe


1 bottle (750ml) of good quality vodka (the better the vodka, the better the drink!)

4 instant tea bags

1-cup water

1-cup sugar



1. Pour vodka into a pitcher.

2. Drop in tea bags. Let sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour (until vodka is a deep caramel/brown color).

3. While vodka is infusing, add water to a pot and bring to a boil.

4. Make a simple syrup by adding sugar to the boiling water and stirring until fully dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

5. When vodka is the right color, remove tea bags from vodka and discard.

6. Add simple syrup to tea infused vodka. Voila! Sweet tea vodka. (If you would like it sweeter, just make more simple syrup and adjust to taste, up to 1 part infused vodka to 1 part simple syrup).


Sweet Tea Vodka Drinks

Serve over ice.

­The Southerner

1 part sweet tea vodka

1 part water


The Tipsy Arnold Palmer

1 part sweet tea vodka

1 part lemonade


Sweet Tea Ice Pops

4 cups boiling water

4 standard-sized black tea bags (Lipton, Luzianne, etc.)

Simple Syrup to taste (see ingredients and recipe below)


For Simple Syrup: 1-cup sugar & 1-cup water

To Make Simple Syrup:

Stir the sugar and water together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture comes to a boil. Pour into a clean canning jar or pitcher, cover tightly and refrigerate for up to one month, using as needed.

To Make Sweet Tea Ice Pops:

Pour the boiling water over the 4 teabags in a heatproof container such as a canning jar. Let steep between 3-5 minutes. Keep in mind that when frozen, the tea will taste less strong, so you may want to let it brew longer than you normally might. Remove the tea bags and sweeten to taste, again remembering it will taste less sweet when frozen.

Pour the sweet tea into ice pop (popsicle) molds or small, disposable paper cups, insert sticks or handles and put into the freezer. It will take about 8 hours for the ice pops to freeze solid, depending on the size of your moulds. These are best eaten within 1 month of being made.

Posted: July 18, 2013