Sweet tea smackdown: which iced tea version is best?

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Order a glass of iced tea in the South and you’re guaranteed to get sweet tea. In most other places in the United States, your server will likely ask if you want your iced tea sweetened or unsweetened. In time for June’s National Iced Tea Month, here is a look at why some Americans prefer one kind of tea over another.

Two glasses of sweet tea with ice cubes, garnished with lemon slices and mint leaves, are placed in front of a basket of lemons.
Sweet tea or unsweetened iced tea. It’s an argument for the ages. In time for June’s National Iced Tea Month, take a look at the popularity of both. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

The popularity of tea

Many cultures around the world prefer to drink hot tea. However, in the United States, tea lovers tend to enjoy it cold and over ice. The National Tea Association said that 75% to 80% of all tea that Americans drink is done so cold.

Fun fact: the very first versions of American iced tea were more akin to that bar favorite the Long Island Iced Tea. It wasn’t until the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, says National Public Radio, that Americans really developed a taste for non-alcoholic iced tea. “The hot summer weather caused fairgoers to ignore hot beverages in favor of cold ones — including iced tea,” said an NPR article. “The fair’s 20 million visitors cooled themselves with iced tea and brought the new style back to their homes throughout the United States and the world.”

The South becomes synonymous with tea

About 100 years before the St. Louis World’s Fair, tea drinkers in the South had already developed a taste for sweet tea. A few things contributed to this trend. One was the abundant access to ice, so they no longer had to drink tea hot. Another was the sugar trade reaching America’s southern shores.

Perhaps the biggest contributor, though, was the fact that South Carolina farmers had been growing tea since the 18th century. They planted Camellia Sinensis on Wadmalaw Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, on land the Bigelow Tea Company now owns. That flower is one that, even today, you can plant in your backyard to grow tea.

Map of iced tea consumption

Today, sweet tea is synonymous with Southern cuisine. Why else would Dolly Parton’s character in the movie “Sweet Magnolias” refer to sweet tea as the “house wine of the South”?

“In the South, if you order an iced tea, it is almost always going to be sweet tea,” added Susannah Brinkley Henry of Charlotte, North Carolina, who writes the beverage-heavy Feast + West blog. “It is always easy to recognize a non-Southerner at a restaurant. They will either order unsweet iced tea or send it back when it is too sweet.”

If you were to draw a map of where tea drinkers prefer sweet tea over regular iced tea, it might look a lot like The Sweet Tea Boundary. This iced tea map appears on a University of Alabama fan page called Tide Fans.

States that lean toward sweet tea include South Carolina — not surprising, given its tea roots — along with North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. After that, the map includes states that supposedly have tea lovers of both persuasions — sweet tea drinkers and those who drink unsweetened iced tea. Those states are Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois.

The remaining 37 states are either agnostic on iced tea — no preference stated — or presumed to prefer unsweetened iced tea. Interestingly, within those agnostic areas, there are cities that lean heavily towards sweet tea. One such city is Richmond, Virginia.

Brewing iced tea at home

Want to brew iced tea at home in time for National Iced Tea Month? Here are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, never use straight-from-the-tap water, unless you have a filter system installed. Basically, public or well water can give off an odd flavor or odor when brewing tea so it’s best to avoid using it at all, unless you have that aforementioned water filter system. Otherwise, purchase bottled spring water for your tea brewing.

Also, when brewing iced tea, you’ll want to use double the amount of tea bags as you would when brewing hot tea. Why? Because when you add ice to the drink, it tends to dilute the flavor as it melts. To retain the tea taste, you brew iced tea to be doubly strong.

This is true whether you’re brewing a one-off glass of iced tea or a whole pitcher. Jere Cassidy of Northern California has learned to make tea on the spot when ordering iced tea when she goes out to eat. “If a restaurant doesn’t serve unsweetened tea,” said Cassidy, who writes the One Hot Oven blog, “I will ask for teabags and hot water and brew my own. Then, I pour it over ice cubes.”

The long and short of brewing iced tea

How you brew iced tea depends on how much time you have. There are methods that call for a long, overnight brew and others that you can make as quickly as you would a hot cup of tea as Cassidy does. You can find the recommended brewing times on the box the tea bags came in. Set a timer on your phone so you’ll know when steep time is over and you should remove the bags. If you compost your food scraps, you can add the used tea bags to your compost pile.

When brewing a pitcher of hot tea to turn into iced tea, remember to double the tea bags to avoid diluting the flavor when serving over ice. Also, if you’re making a sweet tea, you add the sugar, honey or molasses when the tea is still hot and brewing. It’s not something you add after the fact to make it sweet.

Final thoughts on which tea America prefers

If that aforementioned iced tea map were an indicator of which kind of iced tea Americans prefer, there is a clear winner, based on population alone. With only seven Southern states on team sweet tea, it appears that unsweetened iced tea is the leader in the United States. However, don’t tell that to a sweet tea drinker. Chances are they’d rather drink seawater than tea that hasn’t been sweetened.

Leah Ingram developed a taste for iced tea during the Snapple heyday. These days, she writes a food blog called Bagels and Lasagna.

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