Here’s a tip for my fellow Yankees: if a Southern friend asks for a cup of sweet tea, do not hand them a glass of iced tea and a couple of packets of sweetener. Sweet tea and sweetened tea are simply not the same thing.
They take their sweet tea quite seriously in Georgia. A decade ago, Georgia State Representative John Noel, along with four co-sponsors, introduced House Bill 819. The bill demanded that if a restaurant in Georgia served iced tea at all, it must serve sweet tea. The sponsors admitted that the bill was an April Fools Day joke, but that they were half-serious about it. The bill said:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment which served iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.
There is no universal perfect glass of sweet tea any more than there’s a universal perfect cup of tea. There are, however, some simple rules you can follow to keep from embarrassing yourself in front of any guests you may have from Georgia.
Rule 1: Start with strong black tea. Even though sweet tea began as a green tea drink (more on that below), modern sweet tea is made with black tea steeped longer than most tea aficionados would approve.
Rule 2: Use plain white sugar, and lots of it. No artificial sweetener, no brown sugar, just good old-fashioned cane sugar.
Rule 3: The sugar goes in while the water is hot — preferably while the tea is brewing. Do not add the sugar after you chill the tea!
Rule 4: The tea needs to sit for a while in the fridge before serving. Overnight is good, but plan a few hours at least.
Rule 5: Additional ingredients like lemon and fresh mint leaves are a nice touch, but they are optional. Do not add mint or lemon without asking first. Serve it on the side.
So let’s back up a minute. Did I say above that sweet tea was originally made with green tea? Yes, indeed. The oldest know recipe for sweet tea comes from Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree, a cookbook first published in 1879, and it calls for green tea. In fact, the majority of sweet tea was made from green tea until World War II, when Americans disapproved of almost anything Japanese and switched to Indian (or Ceylon) black teas instead.
As any black tea drinker knows, the longer you let the tea steep, the stronger and more astringent it gets. For the most part, if you’re going to steep that tea longer than five minutes, you’ll be adding something to cut the bitterness. Personally, three minutes is plenty for me with most black teas. But with a Southern sweet tea, five minutes is a bare minimum. I’ve seen recipes calling for anything from seven minutes up to half an hour of steeping time.
Since the tea will be diluted with ice later, it’s traditional to use more tea leaf as well. Where I’d use a tablespoon of black tea leaves per pint of water for plain hot black tea, I use twice that much for sweet tea. An ounce of leaf per quart of water is not excessive. You can use teabags if you wish, but I think you get better results with loose whole leaf tea.
As per rule 2 above, don’t skimp on the sugar, either. About 3/8 of a cup of sugar per quart of water works well, but I know few Southern belles that would complain if you went up to 1/2 cup. For optimal results, dissolve the sugar completely in the water before steeping the tea in it, and make sure that water is boiling.
Once you’ve removed the tea leaves, put the pitcher in the fridge and let it chill down. For best results, it should be cold before you pour it over the ice to serve it.