Tea is a drink with a history dating thousands of years with its origins in the area of southern China. We don’t know exactly who first figured out that you could put the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis (tea-plant) in hot water and drink the resulting liquid, although there are plenty of legends.
One of the most outlandish legends for the birth of tea says that a Buddhist monk became so distraught when he fell asleep while meditating that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. The next day two tea plants were growing in the exact spot he threw his eyelids. Serious, I’d say you can’t make this stuff up but apparently, someone did!
The Origins of Sweet Tea
Sweet Tea finds its origins when a Southerner living deep in the backwoods woke up one day to find his banjo missing, vowing to never allow his banjo out of his sight again he… OK, never-mind I just made that up. Hey if someone thousands of years ago can make up the story of the origins of tea, I can make up a story on the origins of Sweet Tea right?
Just like tea itself the origins of Sweet Tea are a mystery and likely was something that slowly worked its way into normality. Ice became more readily available in the mid-1800’s than it had been and this played a role in the evolution of the way we drank tea, which up to that point was always consumed hot.
Northerners were drinking an early form of Sweet Tea since at least the 1860’s as is evidenced by a July 30, 1868 article in the Baltimore Sun stating the following:
“Iced tea is the latest fashionable drink in Gotham—a beverage easily prepared, costs little, does not intoxicate, and can be taken at any hour. Sweeten the hot tea to suit your taste; then pour it, spoonful by spoonful, into a tumbler filled with ice.”
Tea was first grown commercially in the United States in Summerville, South Carolina at the Pinehurst Tea Plantation which operated from 1888 to 1915 under Dr. Charles Shepard. Due in part to this, the city of Summerville makes the claim that they are the birthplace of Sweet Tea, even opening up the “Sweet Tea Trail” in October 2013 as a tourist destination. As amazing as anything called the “Sweet Tea Trail” sounds, Summerville is not the birthplace of Sweet Tea. We know this because of articles like the one above show that forms of Sweet Tea were consumed long before the Pinehurst Plantation.
The First Published Recipe
The first known published recipe for Sweet Tea comes from the book “Housekeeping in Old Virginia” written in 1879 by Marion Cabell Tyree. Mrs. Tyree was the last surviving granddaughter of American Patriot Patrick Henry and her book was a conglomeration of household tips and recipes. The sweet tea recipe used green tea which was the tea of choice for American’s at that time, instead of black tea which is what we think of when thinking of Sweet 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 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 tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency. -Mrs. S.T.
So, What is Sweet Tea?
Now that you have an idea of the origins and history of sweet tea let’s answer the question you came for, What is Sweet Tea? In its most basic form, Sweet Tea is a finely crafted blend of the following: Water, Sugar and Black Tea.
In the South, Sweet Tea is almost always made by the gallon and poured over ice usually into large cups or mason jars. Sweet Tea is a drink for every meal, yes including breakfast and often throughout the day. There is something about this simple drink that has woven its way into the very fabric of Southern life. One of the sayings we have around Sweet Tea Junkie is that “Sweet Tea isn’t just another drink, it’s a way of life.” This is how the typical Southerner feels about their Sweet Tea.
I was recently watching College Gameday on ESPN which is a pre-game commentary show that goes to a different college campus each week of the college football season. They were at Mississippi State University and interviewing Dan Mullen, the head coach. In the background is a fan of Auburn University who they were playing that day holding up a huge sign that read “Dan Mullen Hates Sweet Tea.” I couldn’t help but laugh, it seems as if calling someone in the South a Sweet Tea hater is almost as bad as calling them a criminal!
Until you have had real Sweet Tea it is impossible to understand the devotion we Southerners place on a drink! I’m not talking about a can of Sweet Tea that says Southern Style on the side of it. This simple blend of fresh filtered water, high-quality black tea and the right amount of sugar, when brewed properly, is perfection.
Growing up in the South means you come to know and love Sweet Tea at a young age. I am certainly no different in this regard as some of my earliest memories are “helping” my Grandfather pick green beans in his garden and by helping I mean eating the beans right off the plant quicker than he could put them in the basket. Once I had my fill of beans and he collected a large enough harvest we then brought them inside to my Grandmother to cook. She always had a tall glass of fresh brewed Sweet Tea ready for us when we came in.
We would sit down, have some dinner (which is what the old school Southerners call lunch, while Supper is what most of us call Dinner. You confused yet?) finishing off the Sweet tea before heading down to the lake behind their house to go fishing with cane poles. I know this sounds like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show but this is how I spent time as a young kid visiting the Grandparents.
Years later as I started researching a line of tea at Sweet Tea Junkie it is those memories that kept coming back to me and served as a guide for creating the blends that would end up being packaged and sold to great people all over the South and beyond.
What is Sweet Tea? Sweet Tea is a drink and yet so much more. It’s perfect for a front porch rocking chair with a friend and during Thanksgiving, with all the family you only see a few times a year. It’s refreshing after a long day and the way you know you’re no longer in the South on a road trip.. when the restaurants don’t serve it. It is a common bond that we in the South share. Sweet Tea is a drink and yet so much more.
Our favorite Sweet Tea Recipe
If anyone ever asks you “what is Sweet Tea?” you’ll have an answer. The likely next question is something along the lines of “Well, what does it taste like?” I’m including our favorite recipe, one that we’ve made hundreds of times and always results in a great brewed tea.
What You Need
8 Cups Fresh Filtered Water
1 Cup Pure Florida Cane Sugar
4 Tablespoons Sweet Tea Junkie Handcrafted Black Tea
Put 4 Tablespoons of tea in two large tea filters, or a very fine mesh colander and place inside a large pot. In another large pot boil 8 cups of fresh filtered water. Once boiling remove the water from heat and pour over the tea. Cover and let sit 4-5 minutes and no longer. Remove the tea from the water after 4-5 minutes and set aside. Pour 1 cup of sugar into a gallon sized jug, then pour the hot tea over the sugar. Blend the tea and sugar until fully dissolved. Fill the jug to the top with cold, fresh filtered water and allow to cool.
Shake or stir cooled tea then pour over ice and enjoy with friends or family. One last thing, remember that tea you set aside earlier? You can take it outside once it has cooled and spread around your plants, it is a great source of nitrogen!
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Housekeeping in Old Virginia
The Baltimore Sun