My research into the phenomenon of “sweet tea” — a trend now so widespread that brands from McDonald’s to Snapple to Southern Comfort have started marketing their own versions — has uncovered the following primary differences between what I’d like to call “normal” iced tea and the southern version:
1) sweet tea includes humongous amounts of sugar, and
2) that’s it.
I can only guess at the reasons behind the southern obsession with what I consider sickeningly sweet tea. Seems like the southern states like everything sweet. But then again, in New England, order a “regular” coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and it comes with tons of cream and sugar. So maybe it’s not so much the sugar as a cold vs. hot thing: After a long, hard, sweaty day of slaving over a scythe, mowing the alfalfa, a tall iced tea sounds way better than a hot cup of anything. The fact that they dump tons of sweetener into it is probably just how they get the same sugar fix we northerners get from coffee and tea. And somehow, serving it in a mason jar is part of the mystique.
Whatever the reason, the recipe for iced tea which became the standard in the south was published in 1928 by a Mrs. S. R. Dull, and now the tradition is so entrenched in southern culture that in 2003, Congressman John Noel reportedly filed a bill (No. 819) requiring restaurants in Georgia which serve iced tea to also serve sweet tea or risk being found guilty of a misdemeanor of a “high and aggravated nature.” He later said it was an April Fools joke. Filing joke legislation is what passes for fun on Capitol Hill.
In the end, consider sweet tea to be about the same as soda or lemonade: A sugary drink that has little to do with tea. While it’s not really my “cup of tea,” so to speak, it’s obviously popular enough that a whole marketing niche has sprung up around it. If anyone — southern or otherwise — can better explain why they like the stuff, please leave a message below.