Food
Fact Checked

What is Sweet Tea?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Sweet tea is a type of iced tea which is sweetened while it is brewing, rather than after it is iced. It is heavily associated with the American South, although other cultures around the world make variants on sweet tea. Some people find sweet tea too much to handle, since the traditional level of sweetener is very high. Others, especially in the South, cannot imagine life without sweet tea, and the beverage is ubiquitous at picnics and restaurants all over the South.

To make sweet tea, a pitcher of tea is brewed and sugar is added while the water is still hot. The hot water dissolves the sugar entirely so that it will form a suspension in the water, rather than settling to the bottom. The sweetness of the sugar tempers the tannins in the tea, yielding a beverage which is more sweet than bitter. Once the sugar has been blended, the tea is chilled in preparation for serving, when it may be offered with garnishes like lemon and mint.

Sugar is added to sweet tea while it is brewing.
Sugar is added to sweet tea while it is brewing.

Different cooks add the water at different stages of brewing. Some, for example, like to steep the tea with the sugar, while others pull the tea bags out before adding sugar. In all cases, it is an excellent idea to taste sweet tea while it brews, so that the right level of sweetness is obtained. In the Southern United States, sweet tea can be almost painfully sweet, while more mild forms are available in other parts of the country.

Sweet tea is most popularly associated with the American South.
Sweet tea is most popularly associated with the American South.

The origins of sweet tea in America date back to at least the 1800s, when a recipe for sweet tea was published in a Southern cookbook. Traditionally, sweet tea is made with black tea, although variations with green tea or herbal tea are sometimes available. Some cooks also enjoy making sweet tea with fruit infused black teas, which can create a very interesting flavor.

Like other iced teas, sweet tea can be quite refreshing on a hot day, especially when served over ice. The ubiquitous hot weather beverage can be a great replacement for soft drinks, which are often made with high fructose corn syrup and high levels of artificial ingredients. Sweet tea is also much cheaper than most soft drinks, costing only a fraction to make. Some cooks deliberately brew the tea very strong, so that they can dilute it at the time of serving with cold water or ice.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

candyquilt
@burcidi-- Have you tried McDonalds sweet tea? Is that anything like real Southern sweet tea? I've been having that a lot lately but I have no idea if it's anything like the original.

I heard that sweet tea was first made during war (I think the second World War?) They say that since everything was rationed in those years, including sugar, it was hard to find any commodity in large amounts. Southerners realized that it takes less sugar to sweeten hot tea, than cold tea. So they started adding sugar to tea while it was hot instead of cold. And sweet tea was born!

Is this story true? It makes a lot of sense if it is. It would have been the smartest thing to do in those circumstances. And I think Southerners love their tea so it's not surprising that they worked around the shortage in sugar this way.

burcidi

@turquoise-- Yea, you can use any brand of black tea. I've used Lipton and Luzianne for iced sweet tea and they both work fine.

I think brewing it and putting the sugar in at the correct time is more important than the brand of tea. Although, better quality tea does taste better. It's a personal preference.

The way I make it is that I boil water on the stove and then put in the tea bags. I use one tea bag per three cups of water. Usually that would be too much water or too little tea. But I let the tea bags steep in the hot water for a really long time, so it gets stronger. While the tea is hot, I add the sugar and mix it until it dissolves.

I then put the tea in a pitcher and into the fridge to cool down. I like to make tea the night before so it's ready to go the next day. I serve it with lots of ice and garnish it with some fresh mint. Mmmm! I'm craving it now!

If only sweet tea was low in calories too. Sometimes I wish diet sweet tea was possible, but it's not. Sugar is the reason why sweet tea tastes so good. It doesn't taste like that when I use any other kind of sweetener.

turquoise

I've never been to the South, but I had sweet tea once at a Southern restaurant. It was great!

We were having chili and corn bread and I think the sweet tea was the perfect drink with this meal. I actually wasn't sure if I would like it at first because everyone kept telling me that it's really sweet. But they were kind enough to let me sample some first at the restaurant. I don't think it was too sweet at all!

It tasted great! And I had three glasses of it that day! Either I like sweets a lot or the restaurant hadn't made it too sweet for people who weren't used to it. I can't wait to go back there and have some more!

Can I make sweet iced tea at home? Is Lipton black tea okay for it? That's all I have at home right now.

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    • Sugar is added to sweet tea while it is brewing.
      By: ExQuisine
      Sugar is added to sweet tea while it is brewing.
    • Sweet tea is most popularly associated with the American South.
      By: okinawakasawa
      Sweet tea is most popularly associated with the American South.