“Y’all want some sweet tea?” Southern hospitality can be as simple as offering guests a sweating pitcher on a summer day. Sweet tea is a fixture at family reunions, front porches, and Southern restaurants. Steeped in history as old as the colonies, the drink has become iconic to the South.
French botanist André Michaux first brought tea plants to South Carolina in 1795. A few tea plantations sprang up in the region, one of the most notable being the Pinehurst Tea Plantation, founded by Charles Shepard in 1888. An unpredictable climate and high labor costs kept large-scale cultivation from blooming in the South, however, and most tea plantations shut down. Today, the only commercial tea plantation in South Carolina is the Charleston Tea Plantation, founded in 1963.
Most Southerners claim to have the only proper recipe for sweet tea, and there are endless twists on the drink. Most commonly, the recipe calls for very strong black tea. The tea’s astringency compliments its nominal sweetness, which comes from sugar or simple syrup. It is served over ice in a tall glass, usually with lemon. Although most Southerners know this as old-fashioned sweet tea, it evolved from a very different recipe.
At American and English parties in the early 1800s, celebrants drank punch, a cold beverage made of green tea, sugar, fruit, and alcohol. Regional punches included Savannah’s Chatham Artillery Punch and Charleston’s Saint-Cecilia Punch. The first recipe that resembled today’s sweet tea actually appeared up north in 1884, in “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book.” Like modern recipes, it called for black tea and lemon.
Iced tea was a luxury until refrigeration became widely available in the early twentieth century. Tea was served cold during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but became more fashionable for its role in the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, when merchant Richard Blechynden famously poured his tea samples through lead pipes to cool them. By World War I, special glasses and utensils were invented for sweet tea, and the drink became a popular nonalcoholic alternative during Prohibition. Black tea became the standard when Americans were cut off from other teas during World War II.
Southerners have since embraced sweet tea’s association with the South. It is the official hospitality beverage of South Carolina, and Summerville, South Carolina has claimed the title of Birthplace of Southern Hospitality and Sweet Tea. In a 2003 April Fool’s gag, the Georgia legislature introduced a bill requiring all restaurants serving iced tea to serve sweet tea, which was never voted on. The Summerville Restaurant Association hosts a Sweet Tea Festival each September, and gourmands in McKenzie, Tennessee, can enjoy a combination of Southern tastes each August at the Southern Fried Food and Sweet Tea Festival.
Although it is possible to find sweet tea outside the South, it is nearly impossible to visit the South without trying a glass. Southern-style restaurants north of the Mason-Dixon Line may serve the beverage, and some version of sweet tea can be found worldwide in bottles. For Southerners, however, there is no replacement for the syrupy goodness found in grandma’s fridge.