Sweet tea is a style of iced tea commonly consumed in the United States, especially the Southern United States. Sweet tea is made by adding sugar to bags of black tea brewing in hot water while the mixture is still hot. The tea is served ice-cold and plain but may also be flavored, traditionally with raspberry, lemon, or mint. Sweet tea can also be made with a simple syrup and is sometimes tempered with baking soda to reduce the acidity of the tea's tannins.
Sweet tea is typically brewed with a lower carbohydrate and calorie content than most fruit juices and sugary sodas, but it is not unusual to occasionally find sweet tea with a sugar level as high as 22 brix (percent weight sucrose in water), twice that of Coca Cola. An important part of the tradition of the South, it is often consumed daily as a staple drink.
In the early 1900s, sweet tea was an item of luxury used as an exhibition of wealth due to the expensive nature of tea, ice, and sugar. Ice was possibly the most valued of the ingredients since it had to be shipped from afar at a time when access to cool drinking water was already a relative luxury. In modern times it can be made in large quantities quickly and inexpensively.
The oldest known recipe for sweet iced tea was published in 1879 in a community cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree, who was born in Texas. The recipe called for green tea since most sweet tea consumed during this period was green tea. However, during World War II, the major sources of green tea were cut off from the United States (due to anti-Japanese sentiment at the time), leaving them with tea almost exclusively from British-controlled India which produced black tea. Americans came out of the war drinking predominantly black tea. Sweet tea was once consumed as a punch mixed with hard liquour with flavorings of mint and cream, with mint julep being a close version of the punch drink with its similar ingredients.
In 2003, supposedly as an April Fool's joke, the Georgia House introduced a bill making it a "...misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature" to sell iced tea in a restaurant that did not also offer sweet iced tea on the menu. The bill never went to a vote.
Many restaurants have dispensers that dispense hot or warm sweet tea, and customers pour it over a full cup of ice to make iced tea. This especially sweet variation of tea enjoys most of its popularity in the Southern United States, though bottled iced teas labeled "Southern Style" or "Extra-sweet Southern Style" appear in refrigerated cases throughout the country. One variation on sweet tea is known as sun tea, which is brewed by leaving loose tea or tea bags in water in a jar or pitcher placed in a sunny area for several hours.
Most restaurants in the region, including fast-food and other national chains, offer a customer the choice of sweet tea or plain iced tea (usually referred to as "sweet tea" and "unsweet tea", respectively). It is a signature drink of the region to the point where the Southern use of the word "tea" is largely used to refer specifically to cold sweet tea and not to hot or plain varieties. In non-Southern States, many restaurants do not offer sweet tea as defined above. Typically, these establishments offer flavored teas along with plain tea.
See also 
- Cuisine of the Southern United States
- United States Regional Cuisine
- Iced tea
- Red Diamond
- Tata Tea
- Amacha (literally sweet tea), a Japanese drink
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- Tomlinson, Tommy, "Sweet Tea", Our State North Carolina
- Kinsman, Kat (2007-06-28), "Southern Sweet Tea", SlashFood (AOL)
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- Klineman, Jeffrey (2007-08-08), "I Wish I Lived in a Land of Lipton … What makes Southern sweet tea so special?", Slate (The Slate Group)
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- HB819.html HB 819 – Food service establishments; serving tea; requirements
- History of Iced Tea and Sweet Tea
- Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree. ISBN 1-4101-0508-3
- A Slate article on sweet tea