The Surprising Reason Sweet Tea Isn’t Actually That Southern

sweet tea next to biscuits from paula deen's restaurant

(photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The history behind a Southerner’s favorite sweet tea beverage might surprise you

Sweet tea, or as Dolly Parton called it in “Steel Magnolias,” the “house wine of the South,” is known for being a staple in any Southerner’s kitchen.

Fail to specify a preference between sweet and unsweet tea at any dining establishment between the South line and North Florida and you’ll be served the sugary version by default. But did you know the “house wine of the South” as we know it today in its cold sugary goodness actually has roots that can be traced back to the North? Before all of you Southern mommas threaten to wash my mouth out with soap, let’s take a brief walk down sweet tea history lane.

Sweet tea as we know it today originated in France. When it came to the United States, it was grown in Charleston, South Carolina. Then, tea was commonly green tea concoctions or often spiked with liquor or champagne. The American Prohibition helped boost the popularity of tea as we know it today.

Boozy tea punches in the 1700s and 1800s

First, I want to get one thing straight. Tea comes in many forms and flavors. For the sake of this article, I will mostly focus on sweet tea as we know it today: With tea, ice and sugar. Most historians agree that the first actual tea plant arrived in the US in the late 1700s from France. It was originally grown in Charleston, SC. They were among the first to grow, sell and distribute tea. But not Southern sweet tea.

You see, back then, popular teas were mostly green tea concoctions that were heavily spiked with hard liquor or champagne, juice and/or cream and referred to as tea “punch”. The first known references to a pre-sweetened version of black iced tea, similar to the type of tea we enjoy in the South today, actually appeared in the Housekeeping in Old Virginia cookbook by Marion Cabell Tyree in 1879 and Mrs. Mary Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book in 1884. Yes, I said Boston.

“Ice Tea or Russian Tea – Make the tea by the first receipt, strain it from the grounds, and keep it cool. When ready to serve, put two cubes of block sugar in a glass, half fill with broken ice, add a slice of lemon, and fill the glass with cold tea.”

– Mrs Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book

Despite continuing to play second fiddle to boozy tea punches in terms of popularity, simple black iced tea, by the late 1800s, started popping up in fairs around the country including St. Louis and Chicago.

ice stacked
Ice being stacked at Barrytown, New York, 1871 (commons.wikimedia.org)

The early 1900s, the luxury of ice and prohibition

But why was iced sweet tea noticeably absent from the households of most Southerners throughout the 1800s? It was because we were missing one crucial ingredient … ice. And in the days before the invention of the household electric ice box and modern electricity … ice was a real luxury item. And let’s be honest, things are hot in the South. We need ice.

Our brethren to the North simply didn’t have that problem. In fact, back then those ice-hoggers were able to build large underground ice houses near bodies of water and other natural ice sources. But it was the American Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s that really helped boost the popularity of iced tea. Left without their traditional booze, Americans were forced to find alternatives. Clubs and hotels began selling virgin versions of iced tea and tea punches. And it was also around this time that household electric refrigeration became more commonplace. 

blonde woman holds milo's sweet tea cup
Me, on my pilgrimage to Milo’s Tea homeland in Birmingham, Ala. (photo by Morgan Overholt/ TheSmokies.com)

How did sweet tea become a Southern thing?

In 1928, a famous Southern Cooking cookbook published a Southern sweet tea recipe. It included the ice, tea and sugar concoction as we know it today. And it unknowingly became the catalyst for the culinary cultural phenomenon. However, it wasn’t til the mid-late 1980s and into the early 1990s that sweet tea began cropping up regularly in popular media as a true Southern staple. Alabama-born Milo’s Tea, often considered to be the original commercially available “true” sweet tea of the South, began offering its chilled tea products by the gallon for consumer consumption in grocery stores in 1989. In 1995, South Carolina adopted sweet tea as their Official Hospitality Beverage. And today, there are certain “rules” about sweet tea.

In 2003, as part of an April Fool’s Day joke, Georgia introduced a House Bill requiring all restaurants in the state to serve sweet tea. The text of the bill is as follows:

(a) As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.

(b) Any food service establishment which served iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.

(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.

So next time you enjoy a glass of sweet tea, be thankful for those ice boxes and prohibition.

Did you learn something new about sweet tea? Let us know in the comments below. And if you’re planning a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, be sure to check out our coupons page.

Sources: What’s Cooking America: Iced Tea History, NPR: As American As Iced Tea: A Brief, Sometimes Boozy History.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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