Sweet iced tea. For the Southeastern United States, no single item of food or drink best summarizes its regional identity.
It is found in every restaurant, grocery store and home kitchen from the Gulf of Mexico to the mountains of West Virginia. If you are southern you are surprised when it is not offered publicly or privately. If you are visiting the south from parts beyond you are surprised it even exists. But how did the sweetened iced version of what is inarguably a global beverage come to exist in the U.S. South East in its current form?
In order to understand this, we must take a look at the larger history of tea. Tea specifically the plant that spawned the two major varieties of tea Camellia Sinensis started in China where people have been using it in all kinds of ways for thousands of years. From their tea spread to nearby Asian cultures in modern-day Vietnam Korea and Japan in each of these places teas, history is deep in its production methods shrouded in myth and ceremony.
Tea became almost gleefully infused whatever culture it touched. However, tea usage wasn’t uniform in all these places it underwent an array of transformations in each of these ancient cultures. This century’s long process created a rich assortment of recipes and preparation techniques that have only made the global addiction to tea stronger.
For example, during China’s Tang Dynasty 1400 years ago people preferred a whole leaf variety of tea that was mixed with fruit pastes which were then stored in the form of a cake. When preparing to drink this tea cake recipe, bits of the cake were portioned off tossed into a pot and boiled.
China’s father of tea Lu Yu who wrote the world’s first book about tea and astonishing 1,200 years ago preferred a more humble alternative to the popular tang tea cake method. He felt that tea should just be enjoyed plain, none of the fruit and ginger that Tang society insisted on adding to their tea.
Later when the Mongols came to rule over China the preferred tea was a dark pungent low-quality Borderlands tea made from clippings and tea twigs. Taken with fermented mares milk, not the complicated tea leaf concoction Chinese high society had been enjoying for centuries.
Tea use continued to transform in a similar fashion during these early centuries but how did tea reach the rest of the world the answer is Europe. Europeans started bumping into tea possibly as far back as Marco Polo in the 14th century but certainly by the 16th century, when Europeans began traversing the world’s oceans.
Then in the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company brought the first Chinese green tea leaves into port in Amsterdam. From there tea began the slow cultural uptake in Europe finally making its way into Britain’s drinking places in the 1660s around the same time as Arabic coffee and chocolate from Mexico.
The British really took an obsessive lean toward tea so much so that by the middle of the 18th century it might as well have been the national beverage. Brits like their tea very much like the Mongols did with milk and since Britain had major skin in the global sugar game by way of sugar plantations in the West Indies. Cane sugar also saw increased consumption in Britain during the same time period leading in inevitably to a precursory version of the beverage we now know as sweet tea.
Although versions of tea had been variously sweetened thousands of years prior in places like China and Japan, it is important to note the addition of cane sugar in this version of tea as it directly relates to how the us-south wound up with sugar in its own tea, although sweetening tea in this way was very expensive at this time.
From Europe, tea leaves landed in ports all over the world including ironically India. Despite India’s proximity to China, tea didn’t become a big commercial thing there until the British made an attempt to establish their own tea industry that China did not already control. The British through acts of international espionage worthy of a motion picture, succeeded and India went on to become one of the leading tea producers on earth for a time. The tea experience in India also produced new varieties and flavors of tea namely Assam and Darjeeling among others.
Naturally, tea followed the British wherever they went including North America where the Brits and other European powers were busy planting towns and ports among the dizzying array of cultures and nations already present there. As a result, tea was just as important among British subjects in America as it ever was back home. By the time American colonists began to assert themselves against the British Empire tea was an intimate familiarity among people of all classes and locations in English America.
In fact, disagreements over the taxation of tea and the famous Boston Tea Party helped spark the fires of revolution. After that revolution end to the dismay of the newly self-anointed Americans, tea importation was initially cut off. Despite America’s love for tea it never came back into style in America the way it used to be over time Americans turned toward coffee with such patriotic dedication that today Americans drink three times as much coffee as tea.
Nowadays about 85% of the tea that is consumed in America is iced tea but how did the ice get in there? It turns out humans have been harvesting ice for thousands of years before electric refrigeration. Beginning in the 19th century there was an entire profession of ice cutters who collected ice in the frozen parts of the world and shipped it to the warmer parts of the world via the global ice trade. People of certain income levels owned personal iceboxes or cold closets in their homes where they stored ice once it was purchased from local ice houses. Just like cane sugar ice is a crucial ingredient to any southern glass of sweet tea.
For the United States, modern sweetened iced tea was probably born out of what was called tea punches, this is an alcoholic concoction using tea and some type of wine or champagne. A specific tea punch recipe from 1839 called for tea sugar-rich sweet cream and red Bordeaux wine. Sweet iced tea recipes by themselves specifically popped up as early as 1879 such as in a book called housekeeping in old Virginia by Marian Coble tyree.
This particular recipe which counts as one of the earliest sweetened iced tea recipes we know of is not that unusual from today’s southern beverage except a call for an optional light froth and additional ice on the side served with well-washed grape leaves. That and it probably called for green tea, not the black or dark tea we are all familiar with nowadays. This is an important distinction which we’ll come back to in a moment.
Tea punches in early sweet tea recipes did call for sugar but last we left off cane sugar was very expensive. No worries by 1750 several Caribbean islands became the greatest producers of sugar in the world with modern-day Haiti leading the pack which fueled an ever-increasing sugar addiction in Western Europe and its colonies. As a result sugar production kept getting bigger and sugar itself became ever available and more affordable everywhere including in the United States. So we have the ice and the sugar in place but why aren’t alcoholic tea bunches still popular in the United States how did the alcohol get removed?
Even though there are sweet tea recipes in cookbooks since at least the late 1870s Americans prefer the aforementioned alcoholic sweet tea punches until the National alcohol prohibition experiment came along in 1920. Americans were then forced to switch to virgin teas for roughly thirteen years after which prohibition was ended however at that point it was too late, Americans had picked up a tea habit that did not include alcohol. But there is still the matter of green tea versus black tea where Americans were primarily drinking green tea and not the black tea that is ubiquitous now. Green tea has always been a mainstay for the far east the difference in green and black tea is a difference in preparation techniques.
Green tea much preferred in the east did not last much longer than a year on a sea voyage to Europe. Tea leaves that were prepared as black tea were able to last much longer in storage and were perfect for those early long sea voyages. Once the Chinese figured out the exact recipe for black tea they began selling it to the Europeans who developed a clear preference for the darker variety.
Green tea was still the jewel in the tea drinkers eye so you bought it whenever you could especially as ocean shipping times continued to get shorter throughout the centuries. The United States consumed both green and black tea throughout its history, early tea recipes typically called for green tea. That being said black teas increased in popularity throughout the 20th century until World War II when supplies of green tea were cut off from Asia and Americans were forced to subsist on black tea from British associations like India.
There you have it sweet iced tea. China and nearby Asian cultures created a thousand different ways to consume it, Europe came along and was instantly addicted to it especially black tea.
Britain went so tea mad, they cut in on China’s action by setting up a competing tea industry in India. While also dominating the cane sugar trade at the time Britain brought sugar and tea to North America where would be Americans promptly used tea as a convenient way to break up with the British. Americans began putting ice and alcohol in what was preferably green tea to make sweet tea punches then along Came Prohibition to take the alcohol out of the tea, and then World War II to switch Americans from green tea to black.