When we moved to the southeastern part of the US, there was one thing that I found totally incomprehensible: sweet tea. I grew up drinking large quantities of sun tea when I was a kid in Arizona. I GET that. It was so refreshing and we could drink gallons of it in a day. But Southern Sweet Tea?
In the last 2.5 years, I’ve learned something about iced tea: Southerners take their sweet tea VERY seriously–possibly even more seriously than barbecue! I’ve learned that if you want tea that isn’t sweet when you order iced tea in a restaurant, you ask for UNsweet tea–not unsweetened tea, but UNsweet tea.
Something disturbing happened to me about 3 months ago. I realized that a glass of sweet tea sounded…well…like a good idea on one particularly warm spring day. Then I actually ordered sweet tea to go with my Panera sandwich. A week later, my youngest son “caught” me serving myself some sweet tea at a potluck. A few weeks ago and to my enormous surprise, I found myself saying, “I need to learn how to MAKE sweet tea!” So I commenced to researching the topic and here is what I found.
First, I suspect that the simplicity of making sweet tea is deceiving. I’ve learned that it’s not hard to make good sweet tea…but it’s also not hard to make pretty nasty sweet tea. I’ve also learned that ordinarily gracious southern belles can get very uptight when people make sweet tea ALL WRONG.
My dear friend, Laura, (not the Laura who is my sister), was one of the first to notice my newfound addiction to taste for sweet tea. This happened because Laura is Very Serious about sweet tea. She maintains that all the ingredients in sweet tea are natural and just the way God intended them to be used–no chemicals or articially sweet things like you can find in sodas. She always has sweet tea in her fridge, ready to serve when I drop by her house. After being served perfect sweet tea every visit for several weeks, I finally asked Laura how to make sweet tea myself.
Like I said, it’s easy. Simple.
Laura Bee’s Sweet Tea
Laura runs a pot of hot water thru her coffee maker onto 3 large iced-tea sized tea bags and lets those steep for an hour or two.Then she stirs 1 1/3 c. sugar into the hot tea. She stirs this until the sugar is completely dissolved and then pours the mixture into a gallon jug. Laura tops off the jug with cold water from the tap and puts it in the fridge. She always serves her sweet tea over ice.
So, I’ve been practicing this newfound skill and doing a little reading online about sweet tea and I’ve learned a few things.
- Sweet tea is pronounced like one word. Say the word “sweetpea” and you have the right emphasis. It’s sweet tea, not sweetpea. You don’t ever say it like it’s two separate words: sweet.tea. Not done.
- In some places it’s considered very bad manners to serve lemon wedges in the sweet tea without asking your guest FIRST if they want lemon.
- Which kind of tea you use makes a huge difference. The two best brands to use are Luzianne or Tetley. I tried using the store brand from our local market and the difference in taste was noteworthy and negative.
- Most people say you should never EVER squeeze the tea bags after they’ve been steeping. It’s best to simply lift them out of the tea and discard. Personally, I HAVE squeezed the tea bags and had no trouble. No Sweet Tea Officials have bothered me…yet.
- You can add some variation to your sweet tea by using flavored teas. Green tea works too, but it won’t get as dark as black tea. I made a lovely batch of sweet tea with 3 bags of Luzianne tea and two bags of pear tea. Pretty much the sky is the limit on tea flavors. If you like a certain type of tea, try it.
- A lot of people recommend adding a pinch of baking soda to the steeping tea. This supposedly mellows out some of the tannins and makes the tea darker.
- Most people consider BOILING the tea to be a crime. Perhaps a federal offense.
- It’s very important to refrigerate sweet tea.
- Sweet tea should be served over ice.
- Sweet tea should be sipped, not chugged. Just because I can drink 3 quarts of sun tea in an afternoon does NOT mean I should drink that much sweet tea…unless I want to develop diabetes!
- Some people add fresh mint leaves to a glass of iced sweet tea.
Since I really AM a coffee gal at heart, I really can’t donate my coffeemaker to the cause of sweet tea, so I went hunting for other methods. The method I like best so far involves filling a medium-sized saucepan with water and 1 1/3 c. sugar. I bring that to a boil and remove it from the heat. I put three large tea bags into the sugar water and cover the pan tightly. This mixture should steep for an hour or two. I remove the tea bags (secretly squeezing the bags when nobody is looking.) Then I pour this syrup into a gallon jar and add enough cold water to top off the jar. I chill the gallon jug and serve the tea over ice, garnished with a mint leave…and possibly even a slice of lemon. (Of course, I wouldn’t serve the lemon without express permission from the one drinking the sweet tea!)
My next experiment is going to involve some fresh mint leaves in the steeping process. I’ll let you know how this turns out. Sweet tea today…what’s next? banana pudding?
NOTE: Laura tells me that she’s a Lipton girl and somehow only Lipton iced tea tastes exactly right. Also, she regularly enjoys Chick-Fil-A sweet tea when she’s out and about.