Sweet tea isn’t actually as Southern as you think

Sweet tea as we know and love it today in the South wasn't actually adopted in the South until the 1930s (stock photo)

Sweet tea as we know and love it today in the South wasn't actually adopted in the South until the 1930s (stock photo)

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What’s the best way to tell a Southerner from Yankee? 

Take a look inside their fridge.

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 Mason Dixon line and North Florida, and you’ll be served the sugary version by default. Because in the South, sweet tea is the default.

Read More: Thou shalt follow these 6 Southern sweet tea commandments

And when attempting the risky maneuver of ordering “unsweet” tea, especially at a drive thru, one must learn to enunciate the “UN,” else we will just assume you needed to take a moment to ponder your selection before finally arriving at your “um, sweet tea” decision.

It’s almost like the first time I visited Indiana on a work trip and noticed people around me regularly ordering “French dressing, with an F” for their salads. How else do you spell French dressing you ask? In Indiana, they apparently assume it’s spelled R-A-N-C-H. After all, what poor soul in their right mind would order French when Ranch was readily available? 

I digress.

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 you Southern mommas threaten to wash my mouth out with soap, let’s take a brief walk down sweet tea history lane.

Editor’s note: My mother used to threaten the soap thing on me so much that 5-year-old me got curious one day and actually tried tasting the soap for myself to determine how bad the said punishment might be. 5-year-old me didn’t think it tasted so bad, and I bragged about the experiment to my mamaw who, after laughing so hard she nearly fell out of her chair, warned me that eating soap was probably not the best idea. In my defense, it was just a lick.

Original popular teas in the US featured green tea, fruit, cream and booze (stock photo)
Original popular teas in the US featured green tea, fruit, cream and booze (stock photo)

Boozy tea punches in the 1700s and 1800s

First, I want to get one thing straight. Tea, apparently, comes in many forms. For the sake of this article, I want to 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 and originally grew in Charleston, SC. 

I can already see you shaking your head from here. Yes, Charleston is definitely considered to be part of the South. And yes, technically, 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”. 

Told you, that’s not our tea. That’s some sort of weird imposter tea.

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. Egad. 

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

In the words of the great philosopher Lauren Alaina, “Our shorts are a little shorter cause the sun’s a little hotter.”

Y’all, let’s be honest: The heat is brutal here.

And in the days before the invention of the household electric ice box and modern electricity …  ice was a real luxury item.

Meanwhile, our brethren to the North simply didn’t have that problem.

In fact, back then those greedy Northern ice-hoggers were able to build large underground ice houses near bodies of water and other natural ice sources where they could store ice from the winter and insulate it with straw and sawdust to keep it from melting during the hotter months.

Editor’s note: I am fully expecting a text from my Northern aunt, uncle and cousins after reading this editorial. Hi Aunt Marie!

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 the iced tea and tea punches that had been so popular in years prior. 

It was also around this time that household electric refrigeration became more commonplace. 

But until the 1940s, consumption of black and green tea were mostly split down the middle. 

Black tea finally took over as the primary beverage of choice when major sources of green tea were cut off from the United States during World War II, making us rely almost exclusively on Indian imports. 

We exited WWII as a nation of predominantly black tea drinkers.

Me on my pilgrimage to the Milo's Tea homeland in Birmingham Alabama (photo by Morgan Overholt, TheSmokies.com)
Me, on my pilgrimage to the Milo’s Tea homeland in Birmingham, Ala. (photo by Morgan Overholt/ TheSmokies.com)

How did sweet tea become a Southern thing?

In 1928, the famous Southern Cooking cookbook published a sweet tea recipe that included the ice, tea and sugar concoction as we know it today and unknowingly became the catalyst for the culinary cultural phenomenon. 

But 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 their chilled tea products for consumer consumption in grocery stores in 1989.

In 1995, South Carolina adopted sweet tea as their Official Hospitality Beverage.

In 2003, as part of an April Fool’s Day joke, Georgia introduced a House Bill requiring all restaurants in the state 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 use the expression as “Southern as sweet tea” you may want to pause and consider the rich and sometimes boozy history of the beverage that, had it not been for ice boxes and prohibition, might have never come to be.

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

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