Sweet Iced Tea

By Amanda Liggin
Getty + Jupiterimages

Like most Southerners, I love tea. Not just drinking it – I also love making it. There is something magical about the process of brewing the drink. It takes time, dedication. It is not something you devote yourself to on a whim, but a conscious and deliberate act. Perhaps the ceremony harkens back to a former time, an idea of a slower way of life so coveted in the South.  To start the process you must boil the water. Once the water comes to a boil it must be immediately removed from heat and poured over the patiently awaiting tea leaves. They could be in the confines of the modern tea bag or of the loose leaf variety, it matters not.

Each tea variety has a specific steeping time, or time it must rest in the hot water.  Steep it not long enough and you have watered-down tea, lacking the satisfaction of the “taste-tea-ness.”  But dare you steep your tea too long, an overtly bitter and unsavory concoction will result. This will garner you knowing half-smiles from the women who have brewed tea before you. “It’s still good, honey” they’ll say, secure in their vastly superior knowledge of tea they would have never made such a rookie mistake. So sweet – yet so bitter. Just imagine the shame! And whether you desire your tea hot or iced, it must always start out as this bubbling, steamy brew.

I love the way the water changes color while the tea steeps. You might expect the whole vessel of liquid to slowly turn a uniform shade of brown, but this is not the case. Instead, little veins of color wisp off the tea bags, creating intricate designs. Sometimes the brown tributaries form recognizable shapes; a heart here, an animal there. Only with the deliberate action of stirring does the color uniformly disperse, an act of erasure I find strangely cathartic.

Sugar should be added while the brew is still piping hot – never after it has cooled. This is purportedly for reasons of solubility, but one gets the feeling the ritual of the thing is what is important. The infusion is poured over a tall vessel of suspenseful ice, in a glass or pitcher specifically made for the purpose. The ice cracks and tiny stars appear inside each cube as such intense heat meets such frigid coldness. The amount of sugar required to properly create the beverage should not be underestimated. My mother likes to say that sweet iced tea should be so cold and sweet that “it makes your teeth hurt.”

The oldest printed recipe for iced, sweet tea that historians have found comes from the June 1868 Boston Journal. [1] However, this publication is certainly not responsible for the cultural phenomenon that is sweet tea. For this, we have a man named Richard Blechynden to thank. Blechynden is widely regarded as the first person to popularize iced

Program : Daily official program, World’s Fair, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904

tea on a mass scale. At the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri he debuted an iced lead-pipe contraption that quickly cooled his formerly unpopular hot black tea.[2] The summer of 1904 was apparently swelteringly hot, and Blechynden found that he could scarcely give away his traditional, hot tea. An enterprising idea seized him: what if the tea was served cold? He connected a few lead pipes to overturned ice buckets and poured the steamy tea onto a mountain of crackling ice. The first glass of iced tea (that most had ever seen) was born. The glare of the sun, the stifling humidity, and the beads of condensation running down the sides of that first glass must have made it seem positively magical. Or maybe it was just the lead poisoning. Either way the cold tea was a certified hit with fair-goers. Although there is evidence that iced tea was consumed  in the U.S. prior to Richard Blechynden’s innovation, that initial glass at the fair popularized this new way of drinking tea in the social imagination.[3] The reported 20 million World Fair visitors brought home with them their new experience with iced tea to places all over the globe.

W. & L. E. Gurley, Troy, N.Y. St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904: Exhibit of W & L. E. Gurley. Buffalo: The Matthews-Northrup Works, 1904.

The sight and taste of Blechynden’s first glass of iced tea quenched the public’s thirst. Iced tea became an important element in the lives of Americans, particularly the wealthier middle class. Because the main ingredients of sugar, tea, and ice were relatively expensive for most of history, it was considered a luxury item in the past.[4]  Ice in a time before widespread refrigeration was possibly the most costly ingredient. With the growth in the drink’s popularity a new tea etiquette, or set of social rules, was established. By the 1930s the addition to dining sets of special tall iced tea glasses, iced tea spoons, and lemon forks had become standard.[5] The special glasses were reserved only for serving iced tea, and the long-handled tea spoon was used for stirring sugar into the tall glasses of tea.

Although it was in the past seen as an indulgence, iced tea is now seen as commonplace in the Southern U.S, where it is available to and consumed by all social classes. In modern times it can be made in large quantities quickly and inexpensively. Today, eighty-five percent of tea consumed by Americans is iced tea, and the annual tea market in U.S. is a staggering $10 billion.[6] In 2014, Americans consumed over 80 billion servings of tea, or more than 3.60 billion gallons, which is the equivalent to 5454.5 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Iced tea has always been popular in hotter parts of the United States, particularly the South. Southerners hold a particular fascination for ice. On a hot day under the haze of stifling humidity, the offer of a glass of sweet, iced tea is a welcome gesture of hospitality. Iced tea is also revered in the South because it is seen and omnipresent tradition resistant to change, a mirror of its inhabitants. The longing for an imagined, idyllic past is a  pastime particularly prevalent in the American South. And this past in particular is quite literally imagined, as the idea of sweet tea as a “Southern thing,” believe it or not, is actually quite recent.

There were very few sweet tea recipes published prior to World War II, and the few that exist did not necessarily come from the South.[7] Early American cookbooks show us that tea has been served cold since at least the early 19th century. However this tea, referred to as “tea punch,” was brewed with green tea and heavily spiked with liquor.[8] During World War II, the political climate resulted in the interruption of green tea shipments from Japan and China.[9] Black tea originating from India has ever since been the choice of most Americans for brewing their iced tea.

Mrs. S. R. Dull remarks in her 1928 cookbook “Southern Cooking” that while a small amount of sugar was something one could consider “to sweeten tea for an iced drink…often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end there is more often a waste than saving” [10].  So it seems that Southerners for most of history took their tea sweetened or unsweetened based on personal taste rather than regional decree. According to self-styled sweet tea expert Robert F. Moss, there was a great variation in the wider South on the use of pre-sweetened iced tea up until the 1970s.[11] However, research has shown that women exclusively in rural parts of Alabama and Georgia were heavily sweetening their tea after World War II.[11] The practice probably spread slowly by word-of-mouth until the 1980s, when the use of sweet tea exploded across Southern dinner tables at mealtimes. By 1989, Dolly Parton was referring to sweet tea as the “house wine of the South” in Steel Magnolias. In 1995 South Carolina declared iced tea their official state hospitality beverage. In 2003 the Georgia House introduced a bill making it a misdemeanor for a restaurant not to serve sweet tea.  Additionally, June 10th is the unofficial national iced tea day in the United States.[12]

Exactly why the addition of sugar to our sweet tea is so important to us Southerners is a point of contention. When I request “tea” below the Mason Dixon Line, a glass of sweetened iced tea is usually delivered.  It is served year-round with most meals and has a ubiquitous presence in restaurants, convenience stores, drive-thrus, food stands, and vending machines.

In fact I’ve noticed it’s recently become more common for sweetened iced tea, once considered strictly Southern, to be offered throughout the country. As elements of Southern cuisine have spread North, Southern values have become increasingly important in presidential and congressional elections. “Southernization” is a term invented by U.S. journalists in the late 2000s to describe this cultural effect.[13]  Ideological characteristics traditionally associated with the South such as strong attachment to family and place, religious conservatism, fervent patriotism, propensity for conflict, and distrust of federal government seem to also be taking hold of the larger country as a whole.[14]  Retail outlets and fast food eateries now dot the Southern landscape just as they do the rest of the country, and these places increasingly serve sweet tea.

In a strange way the myth of the Southern-ness of sweet tea has come full circle. Sweet tea was not invented nor popularized in the South, yet it is a custom with the one of the strongest Southern associations. Though this association has only been around since the late 1980s, Southerners consider sweet tea an immutable part of their culture, a tradition that exists outside of contemporary societal fads.[15] Now a wave of Southernization encroaches ever-outward in a display that mimics the frontierism so prevalent when our country was in its infancy. And a wave of sweet tea follows right behind, blazing a global trial onto the dinner tables of households all over the world. Sweet tea is now (again) a nation-wide drink, its sweet-yet-bitter taste no longer considered the just purview of the South. But the South has  indelibly left its mark on the drink – a place where sweetness is historically used to mask an underlying bitterness.



  • 5 – 7 tea bags, more for stronger tea
  • 1 quart of cool water
  • 1 cup white sugar, or to taste
  • Sliced lemon, optional
  • 2 quart pitcher filled with:
    • Ice cubes, fill to top of pitcher
    • OR 1-1/2 quarts of cool water


Pour one quart of cool water into kettle or pot. Bring to a full, rolling boil then turn off heat. Steep the tea bags in the hot water for 9 minutes. Gently squeeze bags of excess water and remove (optional). Stir in sugar until dissolved and set aside. Fill pitcher with ice and then carefully pour the hot, concentrated tea over the cubes. Stir well and allow ice to melt partially. Pour individual servings over ice-filled glasses and garnish with lemon. Makes 2 quarts.[16]


[1] Robert F. Moss, “Summerville can Not Squeeze the Facts Out of Sweet Tea’s Murky History,” Charleston City Paper2013.

[2] “Sweet Tea History,” 2015, whatscookingamerica.net/History/IcedTeaHistory.htm.

[3] Moss, Summerville can Not Squeeze the Facts Out of Sweet Tea’s Murky History

[4] Jan Whitaker, “Tea,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, ed. Andrew F. Smith, 1st ed.Oxford University Press, 2004). doi:- 10.1093/acref/9780195154375.013.0872.

[5] Laura Martin, Tea : The Drink that Changed the World (New York, NY, USA: Tuttle Publishing, 2007). site.ebrary.com/lib/uncch/docDetail.action?docID=10488353&ppg=1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Moss, Summerville can Not Squeeze the Facts Out of Sweet Tea’s Murky History

[8] Stradley, Sweet Tea History

[9] Whitaker, Tea

[10] Moss, Summerville can Not Squeeze the Facts Out of Sweet Tea’s Murky History

[11] Ibid.

[12] “The Southernization of America.” The Economist, 12/10; 2015/10, 1994, S17.

[13] Michael Hirsh, “Southernism Triumphs in the National Dialogue,” Newsweek2008.

[14] “The Southernization of America.” , S17

[15] Moss, Summerville can Not Squeeze the Facts Out of Sweet Tea’s Murky History

[16] Foreman, Mary. “Marys Perfect Southern Sweet Iced Tea.” 2015. http://www.deepsouthdish.com/2008/11/marys-perfect-southern-sweet-iced-tea.html#ixzz3t656naan.