The History of Iced Tea and Ice Tea, but not Ice-T

I was born in the southeastern United States and now live in the Northeast. Most people I’ve met who were not born in The South have unyielding opinions about ice tea which are usually either that it is something that only happens in the South (at least it did before companies like Snapple became a thing) or that sweet ice tea is weird/gross/ridiculous. I thought that ice tea was only a southern thing myself (besides Snapple) until I started researching this blog. It turns out; it is international.

This surprised me considering the one time I took my daddy (an ice tea master) to a Chinese restaurant in Lower Manhattan, and he asked for ice tea only to have them look at him like he was a turncoat and then finally bring him hot brewed tea and a large cup of ice. We laughed a lot. It was delightful, but it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for. I was sure it was only the states below the Mason-Dixon line that participated in this strange custom.

Nope. Austria loves their iced tea and they drink it just as sweet as my daddy does. A lot of countries jumped on the cold tea bandwagon with the spread of brands like Nestea and Lipton and, of course, Snapple. That means they mostly drink the bottled or canned versions (Arizona Southern Style Sweet Tea helped me survived my homesick college years in New York City, so I cannot judge). I want to focus on my birthright, however, and look at the history of my daddy’s tradition: Southern style sweet ice tea.

I say “ice tea” instead of “iced tea” because there’s a difference. Iced tea refers to hot tea that has been poured over ice; ice tea is tea that has either been brewed cold (like cold brew coffee in a way) or has been cooled down before serving, which minimizes the diluting effects of the ice.

In 1795, South Carolina became the first US state to grow tea; SC was the only state ever to grow and sell tea commercially. Tea was brought to the US by the French along with other flowery plants that appealed to southern aristocracy in places like Charleston.

The first cold served tea record comes from cookbooks written in the early 1800s. These were mostly heavily liquored green tea punches. As refrigeration and the ability to keep things cool became more and more common, the popularity of cold tea grew. The first sweet ice tea recipe (without liquor) comes from 1879, and the recipe writer recommended brewing the tea with sugar at breakfast time, letting cool until dinner and serving with ice. The first incident of what I know as sweet tea, the use of black tea, didn’t appear until 1884. This is found in a cookbook from Boston, but we Southerners proliferated the practice. This recipe calls for sweetening the tea after it cools, in each glass, and serving it with lemon wedges. Cookbooks and party descriptions from the 1890s show that the beverage was popular from Nevada to Chicago to Pennsylvania, served at World Fairs, ex-Confederate soldier parties, and even used to promote an ice shredder “for your iced tea.”

Black Tea replaced Green Tea as sweet ice tea’s popularity expanded mostly because of the cheapness of its import. Black tea could be bought cheaply from India, South America, Ceylon, and Africa. It was still mostly familiar in more southern states until the World Fair of 1904 in St. Louis. That summer was exceptionally hot, and the sale of cold drinks far outstripped that of hot ones. People from across the country discovered sweet ice tea. Richard Blechynden is often incorrectly credited with inventing ice tea at the 1904 fair. He was offering free hot tea until it became apparent that people weren’t drinking it, so he came up with a way of serving it cold, and people flocked to it. Blechynden then took his tea to New York City offering it to shoppers at Bloomingdales. He, perhaps, gained the most notice that year for his ice tea, but he wasn’t even the only person with ice tea on their menu at that fair and many people continue to condemn any citation of Blechynden as the beverages inventor.

By 1927 and the first World War there was an entire ice tea market, which I know my Great Aunt Alicia (who even had individual miniature ice cream spoons made because people were scared of taking too big a bite of a frozen concoction) had specially made tall ice tea glasses with accompanying long spoons. And during Prohibition, the beverage’s popularity was elevated even further as people had to figure out what on Earth to drink instead of booze. The best-known recipe that is still used by most ice tea brewers today appeared in 1928 in the cookbook Southern Cooking. Steep, hot tea until desired strength (which should be strong since it will be poured over ice) and add sugar while the tea is hot to ensure it melts and infuses well. The author recommends garnishing with lemon, a mint sprig, strawberry, cherry, orange slice or pineapple and she is adamant that milk does not go with ice tea.

World War II further cemented the prolific consumption of black tea when most green tea sources were cut off from US importation. The beverage is known nationwide but is still most popular in The South. So much so that in a move that Georgia House Representative John Noel said was only partially a joke, a bill was introduced to require all Georgia restaurants to serve sweet tea, or be “guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.”

Yeah, you don’t want to stand between a southern man and his sweet tea; I’m pretty sure the reason my daddy hates visiting me in New York has a lot to do with the lack of authentic sweet ice tea.

Who is Ice-T?

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