There is one food tradition that seems to cross all social, ethnic, and economic boundaries in the South: iced tea, particularly sweet tea. In the movie, “Steel Magnolias” Dolly Parton’s character referred to sweet tea as “the house wine of the South.” In many homes and most restaurants, this is certainly the case. But, why is iced tea such a staple in Southern homes? The history is more complicated than you might think.

Tea was introduced to the United States in South Carolina where it was grown in the late 1700s. In fact, South Carolina is the only state to have even grown tea commercially. It is believed that French botanist and explorer Andre Michaux imported it, along with many unique varieties of flowers. Iced tea began appearing in American cookbooks in the early 1800s, first as alcoholic punches. These first punches were made with green tea, rather than the black tea commonly used today.

Households began to keep iced tea on hand when refrigeration became popular – and with it, ice. The first known version of iced tea, as it is prepared today, was printed in 1879 in a publication called Housekeeping in Old Virginia. Recipe author Marion Tyree wrote that green tea should be boiled and steeped all day. Then, the preparer should “fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls of granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar.” This first iced tea recipe also called for a lemon garnish.

By the late 1800s, the practice of serving iced tea had spread to other regions. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair increased the popularity of the beverage when Richard Blechynden, director of the fair’s East Indian Pavilion, added ice to his hot tea at the request of overheated fair attendees. By the early 1900s, the popularity of iced tea rose and spread quickly across the entire United States and it became a common recipe in cookbooks. By this time, black tea had replaced green tea as the main ingredient; the black tea variety became much less expensive with an increase in tea imports from India, South America, and Africa.

Around this same time, Southern culture was refining the practice of serving iced tea. Special tall glasses were reserved for serving iced tea. Soon, long spoons and lemon forks became customary at Southern tables. By the end of World War I, the entire country was drinking out of tall crystal goblets – iced tea glasses. Iced tea consumption rose during the 1920s with Prohibition, when families began looking for alternatives to wine, beer, and other alcohol.

In 1928, the cookbook Southern Cooking published a recipe by Mrs. S.R. Dull that became the standard for Southern iced tea. “Freshly brewed tea, after three to five minutes’ infusion, is essential if a good quality is desired. The water, as for coffee, should be boiled and poured over the tea… The tea leaves may be removed when the desired strength is obtained…Tea, when it is to be iced, should be made much stronger, to allow for the ice used in chilling… A good blend and grade of black tea is most popular for iced tea, while green and black are used for hot. To sweeten tea an iced drink-less sugar is required if put in while the tea is hot…”

Today, iced tea is widely served across the country. In the South, ice tea is most commonly served sweetened. In almost every restaurant, an order for tea is almost always assumed to mean iced, rather than hot tea. Unsweetened tea drinkers should be prepared to specify their preference, since sweetened tea is standard fare at many homes and restaurants. Iced tea is so popular that it is now bottled and sold at grocery and convenience stores. There are now varieties of sweet tea vodka and sweet tea punches that are experiencing a revival.

Many people who drink iced tea have their own special preparation, varying the amount of sugar, the strength or variety of the tea, and the presence of lemon. In the Alabama Chanin Factory Café, we brew several gallons of Choice Organic black tea each day. Our iced tea is served in the traditional tall glass, and comes sweetened, unsweetened, or both (many of us here at the studio prefer a blend of half sweet/half unsweet).


4 quarts water
3 bags Choice Organic tea
1 cup organic brown sugar (optional)
Lemon wedges (optional)

Bring approximately 4 quarts water to a boil. Add tea bags and let steep for 3 to 5 minutes. For sweet tea, combine steeped tea and 1 cup sugar in a gallon-sized (tempered) glass pitcher. When tea is cooled, serve over ice in a tall glass. Garnish with lemon wedge, if desired.


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Click to read 10 comments
  1. kathleen

    Thank you for the sweet tea recipe. My mother brewed homemade sweet tea for us growing up, though we lived in the northeast. I love sweet tea. How I would love to live nearer and visit the cafe often.

  2. Katherine

    Did you know that we still grow tea commercially in South Carolina? The Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw island right outside of Charleston is, to my knowledge, the only tea plantation in the US. I think the brand is owned by Bigelow now, but you can still get Charleston tea in several blends. I think their. ‘American Classic ‘ is best for making iced tea.

  3. Susan

    Hi- in a support of all things Alabama I wanted to let you know that there is a tea plantation here in Fairhope. It is owned by Donnie Barrett, also our charismatic curator of the town history museum. Having never tried his tea myself I can neither recommend or discourge but will say that any conversation with Donnie, tea or otherwise, would be a good one.

  4. Edward J.

    Many years ago, I was on a theatre tour in the northeast in the middle of winter. As a Southerner, I would routinely order iced tea with my meals. It became almost a game to see who served it in the winter (most didn’t). I was in a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, on a snowy frigid day just before Christmas and ordered iced tea to drink. The waiter didn’t flinch, took my order, and went to the kitchen. A few minutes later, the chef/owner came out of the kitchen and approached my table. “What part of the South are you from?” he asked. “Alabama,” I replied. “I’m from South Carolina,” he said. “And that’s why we have iced tea in December.”

  5. Traci

    Very interesting article. Thanks! I would add that colonialism, exploitation, and theft (unfortunately) also played an important role in sweet tea–all that sugar cane (with its horrible labor practices), not to mention the English stealing tea plants from China and moving them to India to ensure a supply chain and make it more affordable.

  6. Sue Ellen Matherne Olin

    I seriously doubt if tea was at all popular in South Louisiana during the 20th century until about 1965. I am now age 71 and was raised in the Cajun Culture. My parents and grandparents and all of my relatives and friends also did not drink tea until I was older. In fact, I was a teenager in about 1960 when I first even tasted tea. I knew that people in other southern states, or even in North Louisiana drank “sweet tea”. But here in South Louisiana, tea was not something we heard about much. We drank water, milk, lemonade, soft drinks, etc………but not tea. Of course, things changed in time , but still in South Louisiana “sweet tea” is not “the thing” as it is in other southern states and areas.

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