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 Did I say above that sweet tea was originally made with green tea?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.
I rarely sweeten my tea, with a few notable exceptions (chai just doesn’t taste like chai if I don’t add some honey and milk to it). That doesn’t, however, mean I have a problem with you sweetening your tea. I’ve written before about tea absolutists (a.k.a. “tea Nazis”) and their attitudes. I hope I never become one.
What does kind of bother me, however, is preparing a cup of a new and interesting tea for a guest and having them sweeten it before they taste it. For some people, though, they know how they like their particular favorite tea, and they assume that’s how they’ll like all tea. I think it indicates a general unawareness of the breadth of flavors in different varieties of tea.
A friend of mine came by the tea bar the other day, and I was excited to pull out a new tea for her to try. She was born in Ireland, and lived in the British Isles for most of her early life. I know she likes strong black tea, so I figured she’d really like this Royal Tajiri. I asked her, “would you like to taste it plain before you add your milk?”
She looked at me like I was nuts and said, “plain is with milk.”
Back on the subject of sweetening, times are changing. Used to be, a tea bar or coffee shop could put out a bowl with some of the white packets (sugar), some of the blue packets of aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal), and some of the pink packets of saccharin (Sweet’N’Low), and everyone was happy. Expectations have gone up, though. Now, you really need to have the green packets of stevia (Truvia/PureVia), yellow packets of sucralose (Splenda), and brown packets of natural brown sugar. And perhaps a jar of honey, a jar of agave nectar, and a jar of pure maple syrup.
Some want the most “natural” sweetener they can get. Others have a particular sweetener that they like the taste of. Others are primarily worried about the calories. For those who wish to experiment, I’ve been trying something a little different lately.
Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay that’s now being grown in a bunch of countries. It has a number of sweet components to its leaves, and the most potent (Rebaudioside A) is the base compound used to produce the powder in the green packets. That powder has a slight but noticeable flavor, which you’ll definitely pick up in a delicate tea (not that any of you would actually sweeten a delicate tea, would you?).
I’m now stocking dried raw stevia leaf in the tea bar. I use it — quite sparingly — in a couple of my house blends to add a touch of sweetness, and I’m starting to get more customers asking me to drop a pinch of stevia leaf in the pot when I’m brewing their tea. The flavor from the raw leaf is different from the flavor you get from the processed powder. Is it any more “natural” than the powder? I really don’t think so. But it feels different to add some leaves to your infusion instead of stirring a powder from a packet into the finished tea.
Going back to my mantra: whatever method of preparation works for you is the right one — for you.