As Southern as Sweet Tea

Posted on 28 Jun 2015 06:49

There is a basic rule pertaining to iced tea. In areas outside the south, iced tea is usually available, and sometimes sweetened iced tea is available. In the South, sweet tea (what Southerner's call sweetened iced tea) is always available, and unsweetened iced tea is sometimes available. Recently, it has come to my attention that some people think that sweet tea has "nothing to do with the South."

In others words, they are saying that sweet tea has no claim to being Southern. Personally, I don't care whether sweet tea is uniquely Southern. However, if you claim to be serving Southern food, and you don't have sweet tea, then I am probably going to assume you know little about the South. Many restaurants in the South offer only sweet tea. They would never even consider offering it without sugar. We Southerners love our sweetened beverages. Period.

Yes, Southerners drink sweet tea with lots of meals. But, they also drink lots of sweetened soft drinks. You know where the major iconic soda (cola or not) brands all started? Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and RC all started in the South. Many other brands started there, as well.

What about one of the most famous sweet drinks of all time, the Mint Julep? Southern, most likely from Virginia. Mint juleps are made with Bourbon, a decidedly sweet whiskey. From Kentucky.

Southern sweet iced tea with lemon
Southern sweet iced tea with lemon

How Did Sweet Tea Become Southern?

Iced tea is often claimed to have been invented at the 1904 World's Fair. According to Rick McDaniel in An Irresistible History of Southern Food: Four Centuries of Black-Eyed Peas, Collard Greens and Whole Hog Barbecue, this is certainly not the case:

While this may have been the earliest commercial sale of iced tea, and definitely served to popularize black tea, instead of the green tea popular since colonial days, Southerners had been enjoying this cool and refreshing drink since at least 1880, if not longer.

McDaniel says that the earliest printed recipe for iced tea is in Marion Cabell Tyree's Housekeeping in Old Virginia, from 1877. I do not know for sure if this is truly the earliest recipe, but I will recount it here. The recipe calls for green tea and it is very different than how we make sweet iced tea today:

After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner time, strain, without stirring through a tea-strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and then pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the teat over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.

Today we sweeten the tea while still warm and then store it in the fridge, and we would never steep it for an entire day. If you let the tea cool the granulated sugar will not dissolve very easily and you will have tea that is not nearly as sweet as most Southerners enjoy. Isn't it annoying when a restaurant doesn't have sweet tea but they point out the sugar packets on the table? Doesn't everybody know that trying to stir granulated sugar into an icy drink is a fool's mission? Also, we don't let tea wait until tea-time. Any time is tea time in the South!

Bitter Iced Tea

McDaniel, in his instructions on how to make Southern Iced Tea, mentions adding a small pinch of baking soda to the tea to counter bitterness. I have never heard of baking soda to counter bitterness and I've never known anyone to put baking soda in tea. But, perhaps that is a thing in some parts of the South.

Tea does contain a lot of bitter tannins, and perhaps baking soda does something to neutralize them. It makes little sense to me since more base solutions, or ones with a lower pH have a more bitter flavor. Adding something alkaline might neutralize acids and make a sour mixture less sour. If too much were added, the mixture would taste bitter. If the mixture is already bitter, I'm not sure what baking soda would accomplish. This may be a case of confusing sour flavors with bitter flavors, which happens often.

Wondering about this, I searched and was able to find some recipes on the internet using baking soda as a "secret ingredient" to counter bitterness. Common to most of these recipes was a steeping period that was too long. So, if you are combining a long steep with some baking soda to counter bitterness (which I doubt works, sorry), you may be able to skip the baking soda and simply shorten the steeping time. Most folks do tend to start with boiling water and then steep their tea bags in them too long, up to 15 to 20 minutes. Sure-fire way to produce a bitter tea. The directions that the Lipton website gives for "Southern sweet tea," for example, calls for a 15 minute steeping period. Yet, the instructions on the box call for a 3 to 5 minute steeping time. The same as for a cup of hot tea. Although I"ll be the first to admit that my Grandma steeped her tea for well over an hour, up to 5 minutes is all you need. Besides, my Grandma's tea had enough sugar to qualify as a syrup, so any bitterness would have hardly been detectable. I suspect that Lipton's instructions on its website is just a pass-along of this popular instruction, but there is no reason to believe you need to steep iced tea longer than a cup of hot tea.

You do want to heat your water up to the boiling point, but don't let the tea bags actually sit in boiling water. This will release less of the bitter tannin flavors. On the other hand, if you don't allow the water to reach the boiling point, the tea will steep too slowly, and by the time you get the flavor you want, you'll have a much more bitter tea. You want the water just hot enough (just at the boiling point), no hotter and no cooler. Yes, that's right, it's a Goldilocks thing.

Cloudy Iced Tea

McDaniel also advises to let your tea cool completely before putting it into the fridge, or it will turn cloudy.

As someone who drinks at least a quart of iced tea every two days (I'd drink more but I'm trying to be reasonable), I never have this problem, and I consider it bad advise. Letting warm tea sit around at room temperature, especially sweetened tea, is asking for a nice bacterial tea-party (pretty punny, right?). Despite this, "don't put hot tea in a cold fridge" is common advise. No, put your tea directly into the fridge to get it cool as soon as possible. This way, it will be fresher for longer.

If your iced tea does turn cloudy, you have a couple of choices. The first choice is to drink it cloudy, as it will taste the same. And, the faster you drink your iced tea, the less likely it will turn cloudy. Since you really shouldn't keep tea for more than around two days, it shouldn't matter too much. As for what to do if it does turn cloudy, first let's consider why it happens in the first place.

Why Does Tea Turn Cloudy When Cold?

Cloudiness in cold tea comes back to those pesky tannins. They are soluble in water, for the most part. So, when you steep your tea in hot water, or even warm or room-temperature water, they will dissolve and make a clear solution. But, when water is too cold those tannins will precipitate back out as actual particles you can see. As well, certain tannins and other compounds, such as theaflavin, may form a complex with caffeine in cold liquids, resulting in cloudiness.

How Can You Fix Cloudy Tea?

One school of thought is that you can prevent cloudy tea by brewing tea slowly in water that has not been brought to boiling or near boiling. By this reasoning, sun tea would never turn cloudy. However, the problem with this advice is that slowly brewing tea in this way, in lukewarm water is much akin to purposely concocting a bacterial bath to quench your thirst. While you tea is slowly brewing, so are the bacteria. Although sun tea, and other slowly brewed tea has not been shown to be harmful, it has been shown to harbor a lot of bacteria, and this bacteria will continue to multiply, even after you put the tea in the fridge, albeit at a slower rate. In other words, gross. Tea brewed in this way should be consumed immediately, if you care to consume it at all.

Another problem with slow brewing is that it doesn't necessarily taste better, like so many attest. In fact, slow brewing, and "sun tea" was and is nothing but an uninformed fad. Most commercial black teas, with which we are more likely to make iced tea, today are well balanced and won't tend to be overly bitter. However, if you brew them in tepid water, it will simply mean that more bitter factors will be pulled out during the slow process of pulling out other desirable flavor factors.

So, brew your tea in water that is just under a boil, following package directions. That's right! The package is correct. Then, once your iced tea is made, put it in the fridge immediately, and consume it quickly.

If it does turn quickly, there is a time-honored way to fix it. Simply put a little boiling water into the tea and stir. This should clear it right back up.

Is it Ice Tea or Iced Tea?

Notice I've used the term iced tea here. We usually pronounce it ice tea, though, don't we? Sometimes you see people spell it "ice tea" as well. Ice tea would be frozen tea, so, no this is not correct. The tea is "iced" because ice is added to it. Case closed.

Recipe for "Southern Iced Tea"?

I am aware of many "fancy" recipes for "Southern Iced Tea" on the web. The idea the Southerner's make iced tea in some special way is silly. If you have a box of Lipton or Luzianne, or whatever your favorite brand of orange-pekoe tea is, you can make good Southern iced tea. Start with around 4 cups of boiling water. Add 5 to 6 regular tea bags to the water, or 3 family-size tea bags. Allow the bags to steep in the hot water for 5 to 7 minutes, depending on your taste. Meanwhile, add 12 cups of water to a 2-quart pitcher.

Remove tea bags from the hot water, and avoid squeezing them. Add up to 1.5 cups of water to the hot tea and stir. Then stir the tea mixture into the water you added to the pitcher. Add the sugar while the tea is still warm. For two-quarts of tea, you'll probably want at least 1/2 cup of sugar, or more, depending on the level of sweetness you desire. Some Southerners like their tea to be almost syrupy sweet, with over a cup of sugar added. Fancy internet recipes usually recommend some expensive brand of loose leaf tea, which may be a fine tea, but has nothing much to do with being "Southern." We go through 2 or 3 quarts of the stuff a day and Lipton is, and always has been, the favored brand of tea bags.

Do Southerners Drink Iced Tea out of Mason Jars?

Despite the mason jar with a handle style glass in the image above, and in spite of the numerous images showing Southern sweet tea being served out of a mason jar, us Southerners do not "prefer" to drink out of jars. Yes, when I was young, when there weren't enough glasses or other drinking vessels to go around, a jar would be used as a substitute now and again. However, the popularization of the mason jar for drinking tea or any other beverage from is something people probably got from "Po Boy Restaurants" or some other pseudo-Southern food service establishment.

So, let's be clear. When Southerners use mason jars as glasses, it is because they have a lot of jars for putting up food but are too poor to have enough glass-ware. They don't do it for fashion. They do it for make-do. I doubt many people who appropriate Southern culture in this way would like to appropriate the life-style that necessitates it.

It occurs to me that I am ending this article on a bitter note. Maybe I need some baking soda!

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Southern sweet tea image © Joshua Resnick

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