Sweet Tea: As Sweet as You Please
Sweet tea transcends race, religion, and politics because it truly welcomes all to the table and welcomes those who have wandered to far-flung places...Sweet tea...means you are home.
— Fred Thompson
What is Sweet Tea?
Sweet tea is heavily sweetened, iced black tea. Ask a Southerner about sweet tea, and you are likely to get stories. You may hear about fond childhood memories, about the icy sweetness that provides comfort and relief from the heavy humid air. If you’re lucky, you may be regaled with a secret family recipe.
What makes sweet tea irresistible is the sweetness of cooling off, the sweetness of a time and place of family connection and celebration, the sweetness of home.
Sweet Tea’s Controversial History
In early America, iced tea was made with green tea and sweetened. The origins of sweet tea are up for debate. Although the town of Summerville, South Carolina claims to be the birthplace of sweet tea, food historian Robert F. Moss proves this false. According to Moss, sweet tea came from the North, where all tea drinking in America originated. Iced sweet tea was enjoyed from Chicago to New York City, probably because Northerners had better access to ice. The rest can be chalked up to local legend.
Prep Tips: Pre-Sweeten
Our Head Blender Gina adds sugar while the tea is hot before letting it cool to room temperature. If you sweeten tea while it's infusing, or right after straining, your tea will be sweet and smooth. However, you can’t change the level of sweetness once it’s cooled. So if you want to adjust the sweetness for each glass, add simple syrup to taste to your iced tea. For a deeper look at differences in sweetening iced tea, check out this feature from Adrian Miller.
Prep Tips: How to Avoid Cloudiness
Putting hot tea into the refrigerator will make the tea cloudy. How do you avoid cloudiness? The best way to avoid cloudy black iced tea is to allow the tea to slowly cool to room temperature. Some suggest adding baking soda to tea to avoid cloudiness, but we find this step unnecessary. To ensure clear black iced tea, brew a concentrate, then dilute with cold water, and serve over ice. This way, your brewing is fast, easy, with no cloudiness.
Our 5 Best Sweet Tea Blends
Here are August Head Blender Gina’s favorite teas for making uncommonly delicious sweet tea.
Low Country is fairly traditional, a strong black tea with burnt sugar. (This tea is inspired by the flavors and landscape of the Atlantic coast of South Carolina and Georgia. (And yes, we know that the proper spelling of this region is Lowcountry)
Dark Iris is a modern choice for sweet black tea with Southern flavors of peach and rose.
Dots and Loops balances the decadent texture of sweet tea with the bright tartness of green apple.
Know by Heart makes a beautiful sweet white tea with the gorgeous flavors of orange blossom and almond. Since it's got honey, you don't need any added sugar.
Big Easy is another naturally sweet green tea with pineapple and caramel. It's light and irresistible.
Read On: More About Sweet Tea's Culture and History
Here are the most recent authoritative articles on the topic of sweet tea.
- Robert F. Moss, “Why Southern as Sweet Tea” Isn’t Very Southern at All, Serious Eats, June 15, 2020
- Robert F. Moss, “Summerville can’t squeeze the facts out of sweet tea’s murky history”
James Beard award winning chef, Sean Brock’s, Sweet Tea Recipe:
Husk, Nashville Sweet Tea, Imbibe Magazine, June 20, 2014
If you want to read various Southern chefs' opinions on sweet tea:
- Jenny Adams, "Sweet Tea is an American Classic," Imbibe Magazine, July 4, 2014
- Hanna Raskin, “Sweet Tea Secrets,” Garden and Gun, June 13, 2017
- Fred Thompson, “Taste of Tradition,” Cornbread Nation 5, University of Georgia Press, 2010
- Adrian Miller, "Why Sweet Tea is the South’s Quintessential Drink," First We Feast, July 6, 2016
- Jeffrey Klineman, “I Wish I lived in the Land of Lipton,” August 8, 2007
For a cultural overview of sweet tea around the world:Julianna Rose Dow, "Beyond Southern Sweet Tea: How Sweet Tea is Drunk Around the World," The Kitchn, May 1, 2019