Iced Tea: History of a Southern Tradition

iced tea

The hot, humid weather of Virginia summer has all of us here in the Old Dominion looking for creative ways to cool down. But sometimes the traditional methods are still the best. And nothing is more traditional, or more refreshing, during summers in the South as a good old-fashioned glass of iced tea.

Iced tea is a beverage with truly American roots. Virginia and other Southern states played a major role in making iced tea the ubiquitous drink it is today. Its roots in America trace all the back to the 18th century, when farmers in South Carolina began growing tea plants. South Carolina was the first place that tea was grown in America, and it is the only state where tea has ever been produced commercially.

Cold tea beverages were first popularized around the early 19th century in both America and England. These tea punches were usually made with green tea, rather than the black tea that is considered traditional today. They were also heavily spiked with liquor. The mint julep is a modern-day descendant of these tea punches.

The popularity of iced tea, as well as other cold refreshments, developed along with refrigeration technology. As it became easier to keep foods cold or frozen, cold treats became more accessible.

Virginia can claim quite a feather in its cap when it comes to the development of this Southern staple. The very first recorded recipe for sweet tea was published in a cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree in 1879. The recipe outlined the same general process that is used for making sweet tea today, but it called for green tea, which was still the most popular tea for drinking cold at that time.

More recipes appeared in other cookbooks, and by the beginning of the 20th century, iced tea was commonplace.

Black tea was increasing in popularity over this time, but green tea was still the preferred tea in the early to mid 20th century. This changed during World War II when almost all sources of green tea imports were cut off from the United States. During the war, most tea imported to the U.S. came from India, which was still under British rule at that time. India produced exclusively black tea. The trend of drinking black tea continued after the end of World War II and has persisted to this day.

Now, when we think of Southern sweet tea, we automatically think of black tea. In fact, the renewed popularity of green tea (hot or iced) in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon. Some claim that the preferred tea for iced tea is the orange pekoe variety, but most in the South are not so picky.

iced tea

There are many variations and different recipes for sweet tea, but the essential steps remain the same. You first brew a highly concentrated tea base using at least two or three times the number of tea bags you would use for normal hot tea. Sugar is added to the mixture while it is still hot. This is what makes it true sweet tea and not just tea that has been sweetened. Then you pour your tea base into a pitcher and top it off with water, creating the correct strength for drinking. Chill well and serve over ice. Some like to flavor or garnish their tea with lemons, mint leaves, or other flavorings, but that is up to the individual.

What’s your favorite sweet tea recipe? Don’t forget to like and share!

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