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All About Sweet Tea, the South’s Favorite Beverage

If one drink can define a region, this is it.

Close your eyes and picture your stereotypical idea of "the South." You might see folks in their Sunday best, sitting on a shady front porch and enjoying glasses of sweet tea from a large pitcher. It’s a cliche, but like most cliches, there’s a dollop truth to it. Sweet tea is the elixir of the genteel, Southern gods.

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Why, though, is the sucrose-laden beverage ubiquitous in the South and mostly ignored everywhere else in America? What’s the story behind sweet tea?

When did Americans begin drinking tea?

Consumption of hot tea made its way to the Colonies via British expats, and the first attempts at homegrown tea cultivation occurred near Savannah, Georgia, in the late 18th century (major success wasn’t had until the founding of Summerville, South Carolina’s Pinehurst Tea Plantation in 1888). When they weren’t drinking varieties grown in the United States, Southern Americans mostly consumed imported green teas. Black teas from China and India wouldn’t become popular until the the turn of the 20th century. By the middle of the 1800s, advancements in refrigeration led to the rise of tea served over ice — a refreshingly cool answer to a hot summer day in the time before air conditioning.

When did sugar come into the mix?

Marian Cabell Tyree was the mental giant who first thought to print a recipe for sweet tea — she called it "ice tea" — publishing it in a cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia in 1879. Tyree advised home cooks to brew a batch of green tea in the morning if the desire was to serve it with supper. "Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar," she wrote. "A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency."

The beverage was derived from "tea punch," which typically included sugar as well as a hearty amount of alcohol in one form or another. Its popularity eventually begat the inevitable commercial production by large companies such as Lipton and Luzianne. Smaller operations with loyal followings abound too. For example: Go door to door in the Birmingham, Alabama, metro area and you’ll find many a refrigerator chilling gallon jugs of Milo’s Famous Sweet Tea.

Just how sweet is it?

If progressive, health-conscious policy makers ever get soda taxes passed across America, they may want to also turn their attention toward sweet tea. An 8-ounce glass of Lipton’s version contains 23 grams of sugar, just three grams fewer than the same serving of Coca-Cola Classic. It’s really sweet. Pro-tip: If you’re dining out and the thought of that much sugar sends you into diabetic shock, order "half-and-half." A mix of sweet and unsweet (when sweet is the norm, regular old iced tea is called "unsweet") this might be more palatable.

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