Sweet Tea: A Love Story

Why we’re all addicted to the sweet stuff

Photo: Caroline Allison

A sweaty glass of sweet tea at the Chintzy Rose in Knoxville, Tennessee

My mother’s sweet tea was not the best. Perhaps this is because she was from West Virginia, a place where people drink sweet tea with some ambivalence. Or maybe because in Jacksonville, Florida, where I was raised, delicious sweet tea could be found for $1.99 at the local supermarket in sweaty gallon jugs with nothing but the word sweet and the date stamped on the plastic.

She still made sweet tea, of course, being a Southern woman of whom having iced tea on hand is expected. But instead of sugar, my mother used Sweet’N Low, which is kind of like making chocolate cake with dirt. She insisted no one could tell the difference: “They’re both sweet.

For most of my youth, any sweet tea I consumed came from fast-food restaurants, usually those specializing in fried chicken or ribs. Soda was not allowed in our bodies or even our house—except for Tab, for Mother, until they figured out the chemical that made Tab sweet also made rats insane. Then, all soft drinks were verboten. Sweet tea, however, was fine, even though the health benefits of drinking sweet tea are akin to those of drinking icing.

My father, a doctor, explained to me that sweet tea is the devil’s brew, blood-sugar-wise. A glass of sweet tea is around 22 percent sugar, twice that of a can of cola. Add to that the ubiquitous free refills one is accustomed to getting with sweet tea, and you’re looking at enough sugar to choke Augustus Gloop.

When you drink sweet tea, your body starts to pump out insulin like water from a fire hose. Then, you have the caffeine. Which stimulates your adrenaline. Which confuses your metabolism. And keeps you from feeling sated, as one normally would after swallowing that much sweetness. Only a select few can eat seven pieces of cheesecake at a sitting, for example. But nearly everyone I know nods and says, “Just one more” when the lunch lady comes around toting the clear pitcher with the rubber band snapped around the handle.

To say Southerners drink sweet tea like water is both true and not. True because the beverage is served at every meal, and all times and venues in between—at church and at strip clubs, at preschool and in nursing homes. Not true because unlike water or wine or even Coca-Cola, sweet tea means something. It is a tell, a tradition. Sweet tea isn’t a drink, really. It’s culture in a glass. Like Guinness in Ireland. Or ouzo in Greece.

(When I was stuck in New York for a stint, a bout of homesickness led me to get the words sweet tea tattooed on my left arm. I could think of nothing else that so perfectly encapsulated the South of my pining. Now that I have moved home, it serves less as a touchstone and more as a drink order.)

Photo: Caroline Allison

The author's "sweet tea" tattoo

Theories abound: Southerners prefer sweet tea because back in the day we used sugar as a preservative and our palates grew to crave the taste. Southerners like sweet tea because it is served ice cold and it is hot as biscuits down here. Southerners like sweet tea because we are largely descended from Celts and Brits, making a yearning for tea a genetic imperative. Southerners like sweet tea because Southerners are poor and tea is cheap. (Cheaper than beer anyway.) Southerners like sweet tea because it is nonalcoholic but it still gives you a hearty, if somewhat diabolical, buzz.

No matter the source, our affection for sweet tea characteristically reaches religious fervor. Ask any Southerner where the best sweet tea is served, and he or she will have an opinion. I once knew a man who would drive forty-five minutes to a south Georgia Chick-fil-A because it had what he deemed the tea of the gods. This is not the sort of devotion one finds with other beverages, even coffee. Coffee is an addiction. Sweet tea is an obsession.

We are similarly evangelical about how best to prepare sweet tea. The basic recipe is undemanding. You brew a handful of bags of Lipton or Luzianne or whatever pekoe you prefer, pour the hot tea over a mound of sugar or simple syrup, add water to dilute to taste, stir, and serve over ice, with or without lemon. The amount of sugar is up to the maker, but generally runs somewhere between cotton candy sweet and sweet enough to liquefy your teeth.

Some people like to get fancy. Adding raspberries, using a coffeemaker to brew the blend, sneaking in baking soda to tame the bitterness. These people are annoying. Sweet tea should be just that. Any differences should come from the alchemy of proportion and tea selection, not questionable, post-brewed, kitchen sink-ian doctoring. Save that for BBQ sauce. (Also irritating: the nouveau tradition of some restaurants serving the tea unsweet, with a little jug of simple syrup on the side. Sweet tea isn’t meant to be precious. It is a guzzle drink.)

The tea at the Chintzy Rose transcends the beverage category. It is more of a meal. A song. A poem.

Recipes for sweet tea exist from the turn of the nineteenth century on, but lessen in frequency starting around the 1930s. By then, everybody knew how to make sweet tea, and recipes became unnecessary, like instructions for walking.

In 1879 Marion Cabell Tyree published Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which many believe contains the first printed sweet tea recipe. Tyree advocates “a squeeze of lemon,” writing that lemon “will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.”

By the 1920s Americans were stocking their kitchens with specialized iced tea glasses, long spoons, and dainty lemon forks. In Southern Cooking, published in 1928, Henrietta Stanley Dull advises women to serve sweet tea with “a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of orange, or pineapple.” “Milk,” she writes, “is not used in iced tea.” (No word on Sweet’N Low.)

South Carolina was the first place in the United States to grow commercial tea, an industry founded in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist André Michaux stopped by with a tea plant in his satchel. He also brought crape myrtles and camellias. If he’d imported a hog, we’d have statues to the guy in every Southern town square. For some time, sweet tea was a sign of wealth. Sugar and ice cost money. To be able to use both in a drink was flashing serious old-timey bling. Then refrigeration happened. And any garden-variety cracker could have tea with ice. Sugar got cheaper, then ubiquitous, and with it, sweet tea.

It is impossible to imagine eating most Southern foods without sweet tea. You can’t wash down pulled pork with water. It takes a beverage with some oomph to cut through lard-dunked catfish. The sugar in sweet tea is nature’s intestinal Drano. The caffeine makes it possible to drive home after a Sunday brunch of fried chicken and cheese grits. This is not to say sweet tea goes with everything—pizza requires Coke, curry requires beer—only that it marries best with the food of our people, cementing its status as the iconic Southern libation.

In 2003 Georgia State Representative John Noel introduced House Bill 819 proposing to require all Georgia restaurants that serve tea to offer sweet tea, defined in the bill as “iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.” The bill—which warned that “any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature”—was a joke, but Noel reportedly said he wouldn’t mind if it actually passed into law.

My sweet tea addiction came into full bloom not in Georgia, where I lived for many years and enjoyed many a first-rate glass of sweet tea, but in Knoxville, Tennessee, at a modest family-run tearoom called the Chintzy Rose.

Photo: Caroline Allison

The place where her addiction bloomed

The Chintzy Rose is a side-of-the-road junk shop/café that sells painted furniture and chenille throws along with BBQ and corn chowder. Run by Bobbie Miller and her daughter Kelly Phibbs, it offers superior chicken salad and strawberry cake, but what brings in folks from as far away as Utah is the sweet tea.

The tea at the Chintzy Rose transcends the beverage category. It is more of a meal. A song. A poem. Notes of orange and lemon intertwine with the sharpness of the tea, all of it buoyed by a mysterious sweetness unlike your basic simple syrup. They serve it with an orange wedge in chunky crystal glasses, but it hardly matters. They could serve it out of their shoes and people would still line up to drink. It is the Proust of sweet tea. Complicated, elusive, not for the weak of heart. Every mouthful reveals another layer of flavor. The ladies won’t divulge how they make the tea so rich and compelling, citing “secret ingredients.” I’m pretty sure one of them starts with “c” and ends with “rack.”

According to Kelly, their tea started as a custom blend supplied on the down low by a guy from the local JFG Coffee Company factory. “He never told us what was in it either.” After a time, the ladies made their own concoction: “loose tea—it was a lot of trouble.” Now all they’ll cop to is “a combination of teas. We always make it strong. Most people in the South like it strong and sweet.”

Kelly says she gets a lot of folks who come only for the sweet tea, $1.75, free refills. “I’ve had a bunch tell us we should open a drive-through window so they won’t have to get out of their cars.”

“This woman came in a while back for the first time,” remembers Kelly. “And every time I walked out there her glass was empty. By about the fifth trip, I said, ‘Again?’ She said it would be easier if I just brought an IV and hooked her up.”

Photo: Caroline Allison

When I lived in Knoxville, I drank Chintzy Rose tea every day. I had my own table in the back, right by the kitchen, and my first glass of tea was generally waiting there for me before my jeans hit the seat. I could never, no matter how many times I swore to myself beforehand that today would be the day, drink just one glass. My resolve melted with the sugar.

I took others to the Chintzy Rose. Veteran tea drinkers who swore that so-and-so’s tea was better until they tasted their first chintzy sip, then looked at me, their eyes glazed, breath short, speechless with wonder and gratitude. I brought Yankees in too. Folks who had never heard of sweet tea, which was a bit unfair really, because after the Rose, none would compare—kind of like seeing the Beatles for your first concert or learning to drive in a Ferrari.

When I left Knoxville (eight pounds heavier, incidentally), I begged Kelly for the recipe. And by begged, I mean I offered either one of my daughters in trade.

I never got the secret. Since then, I’ve tried to replicate their sweet tea in my own kitchen. I haven’t come close. Still, my mother likes it. I tell her it’s like hers, only without the carcinogens. She says she doesn’t notice the difference.