Sweet Tea Secrets

Chefs share their tips of the trade for making the “house wine” of the South

Photo: Margaret Houston

There isn’t a chef in the South who can’t whip up a mean batch of sweet tea. Familiarity with a tea urn and a long-handled spoon is generally a prerequisite for working anywhere from a fried-fish shack to a jackets-required dining room. The nearly-universal consensus is that, when it comes to making sweet tea, simple is best.


The Base
Black tea, the kind commonly found in popular brands like Lipton and Luzianne, is generally considered the standard base, although some chefs opt for imported upgrades. “I generally use PG Tips,” says Julia Sullivan of Nashville’s Henrietta Red, who brews the British tea at double strength before adding sugar, then diluting with water to reach the desired balance. Michael Echeveste, beverage director for the Asheville, North Carolina-based Tupelo Honey Café chain, swears by orange pekoe black tea which isn’t a separate variety: It’s the highest grade, based on leaf size.


The Brew
Perhaps the hottest trend in iced tea is the method by which many chefs prefer to make it—solar-powered. “When the weather was nice, my mother would take an old glass gallon-sized pickle jar, add water and four large tea bags, and sit it on the stone steps by our screened-in porch all afternoon,” says Matt Gallaher of Knoxville, Tennessee’s Knox Mason, who points out that sun tea is kin to the cold brew that currently rules Southern coffee shops, and for the same reason. “She attests that a long, slow steep gives a cleaner tea flavor without the bitterness that can result from boiling.”


The Personal Touch
Bob Peters of The Punch Room in Charlotte, North Carolina, is also a sun tea devotee, but he likes to add dried hibiscus flowers to eight tea bags before pouring a gallon of cold water over them. Hibiscus is also a favorite flavoring trick of Feizal Valli, owner of The Atomic Lounge in Birmingham, Alabama. He steeps the flowers in simple syrup to add slightly tart, cranberry-like flavor.


The Sweetener
For Krista Slater, who with husband Jerry, ran Atlanta’s dearly departed H. Harper Station before launching a beverage-consulting company, classic is the way to go: Dixie Crystals sugar, stirred into sun tea while it’s warm. “And I won’t drink sweet tea without a good squeeze of fresh lemon,” she adds. “It’s that extra brightness that pulls everything together.”