Sweet Tea, A Tall Drink of History

As Dolly Parton's Turvy Jones so eloquently phrased it, sweet tea is "the house wine of the South" (Steel Magnolias, 1989). And it seems to be true, from backyard barbeques to fine dining establishments; even McDonald's now offers Southern-style sweet tea. Enjoyed for decades in the Southeastern United States, sweet tea is making its way steadily north, east, and west, becoming a common beverage option throughout the country. So what's the story behind this summer favorite?

Hot tea was a part of American culture from its birth as an English colony. Most readers know the story of the Boston Tea Party, an incident highlighting exactly how culturally and economically important tea was to early colonial Americans. From there, it makes logical sense that in the hot and humid Southeastern United States, it only took a century or so before someone threw some ice into that tea. And that clever character, whoever he or she may be, began a timeless trend.

A Tall Drink of History

Sweet tea's actual birth is steeped, if you will, in myth and legend. Many states in the Southern United States claim that its origins are somewhere within their boundaries, but there's no confirmed birthplace to date. The most common misconception is that sweet tea originated at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. However, recipes dating back through the early 1800's include recipes for a variety of iced tea drinks. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair actually has records of iced tea concession stands. So what happened in the early 1900's that made it so popular?

The tale of the 1904 World's Fair may certainly have some credibility. While sweet tea certainly wasn't invented at that moment, it's possible that the right vendor had the right idea at the right time, showcasing his sweetened tea over ice to an international group of thirsty fairgoers on a very warm day. Bear in mind that ice was considered a luxury by many, especially in the hotter, more humid Southern states - remember that ice boxes weren't a household item until the 1930's. It's also very likely that the popularity of this cold, sugary drink was furthered during Prohibition (1920-1933), when the US government made the sale and consumption of alcohol illegal. Many popular mixed drinks at the time included tea in their recipes. For many, a plain iced tea with sugar was a decent substitute to the palate, if not to the mind.

Making Your Own

Sweet tea is typically made using a simple black tea, sweetened to taste, and served iced. As time has passed, variations on sweet tea have evolved using different sweeteners, such as honey or raw sugars, and adding fruit and other flavors. Honey crystals can provide the flavor of honey without the hassle and mess of using sticky honey, and dissolve easily in an icy cold cup. Any tea can make a great sweet tea, based on your preferences. So if you're into sweet, cold beverages, pick up your favorite supplies and make your own before the summer's over!