Iced Tea, Sweet Tea, and That Elusive American Tea Culture

Sweet tea in Charleston, South Carolina

Sweet tea at Magnolia’s, Charleston, South Carolina

Last Tuesday, I shared a recipe for making chai concentrate, and I was sure to point out that it can be served hot or over ice. I mentioned this because most of my readers are from the United States, where it’s currently summer, and the weather is hot. Although many cultures persist in drinking hot tea year around, in July and August, Americans typically like their beverages cold.

While iced tea is not unique to the United States, it is more popular here than in many other countries. Maybe it’s because iced tea was supposedly invented in the US at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

According to the popular myth, Richard Blechynden was giving away free samples of his plantation’s tea, but, due to the heat, fair-goers weren’t terribly interested. Looking to garner more attention, he dumped ice into his tea creating a new and much more enticing drink. In actuality, there are iced tea recipes in Southern cookbooks from the mid-1800s, and Blechynden didn’t invent the beverage so much as popularize it.

Today, 85% of tea consumed in the United States is iced. When we couple this fact with another — 85% of tea consumed in the United States is black tea — a uniquely American tea tradition becomes apparent:

Southern sweet tea.

If you order iced tea in the Southeastern United States, it will be assumed that you want sweetened black tea over ice. Elsewhere in the country, you’ll be asked if you want your tea sweetened or unsweetened; sometimes you’ll be offered raspberry or peach iced tea, and on rare occasions there will be a green tea option.

I’m from the Northeastern US, and this lack of choice “down South” seemed strange to me when I was younger. But, when I road tripped down the East Coast this past May, I drank sweet tea in Charleston, South Carolina, and realized it wasn’t a lack of options. It was a cultural experience. And one that is distinct to the United States.

It’s like drinking a piece of Americana.

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2 comments

  1. Nothing like ice tea on a hot summer day.

  2. As I write this, I’m drinking a cup of hot black tea with honey, to calm my throat. I woke up with an annoying allergy cough. In the summer, I always ask for unsweetened iced tea, preferably with lemon.

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