The Story of Sweet Tea: From Middleton Place to Modern Times
Sweet tea is a demarcation line for Dixie, much like “Hey y’all!” or the Piggly Wiggly. If a restaurant server asks whether you want your tea “sweet or unsweet,” you know you are solidly below the Mason-Dixon.
Despite its celebrity status within the South, sweet tea has a muddled heritage. Sweet tea is not like a MoonPie, which is solidly from Chattanooga. Or Elvis Presley, from Memphis by way of Tupelo. We know their backstories. But where did you come from, Sweet Tea? Who are your people?
Summerville, South Carolina, calls itself the Birthplace of Sweet Tea. And every September, the town throws a party to celebrate that distinction. The Summerville Sweet Tea Trail swings past a 15ft-high Mason jar, which held the World’s Largest Iced Tea on June 10, 2016, according to the Guinness Book of World Records (and yes, it was sweet tea). But is Summerville’s claim as the birthplace legitimate?
Perhaps the best place to start is with a definition. How is Southern-style sweet tea different from sweetened tea? For starters, sweet tea is not iced tea that’s been gussied up with table sugar. In that scenario the tea has been sweetened, yes, but it’s not Southern-style sweet tea. Below the Mason-Dixon, sweet tea always begins as a hot mess.
“In the South, they are traditional brewers of tea,” said William B. Hall, a third-generation tea taster and co-owner of Charleston Tea Plantation in partnership with Bigelow Tea. “They want to steep the tea, brew the tea, and turn it into iced tea.”
And how does that become sweet tea?
“It’s very simple,” continued Hall. “You just make the regular tea and put some sugar in a pan with some water. Warm it up so the sugar dissolves, and then you add it to the pitcher of the iced tea that you made. That’s the traditional way of doing it here.”
In a pinch, most Southerners say it’s fine to dump the sugar into the tea without making a simple syrup, but with one caveat. “You need to add the sugar while the tea is hot because it better dissolves in the tea - and you get genuine Southern sweet tea,” said Tina Zimmerman, who is Summerville’s Director of Tourism. After the tea and sugar are mixed, you add the ice. “We make it here in the visitor center, and we serve tons of it.”
And yes, we realize that sweet tea and sweetened iced tea are essentially the same thing, but Southerners don’t really have time for your out-of-town simplifications, bless your heart. It’s the doin’ that makes all the difference.
Tea does have a long association with South Carolina. According to Hall, the first tea bushes were brought to America from China by a French botanist, Andre Michaux, around 1799. Michaux took the plants, intended for purely ornamental use, to Middleton Place on the Ashley River, well-known even then for its gardens.
Commercial attempts to grow tea in America began in the 1820s. All of these ventures started in South Carolina, where conditions are well-suited to growing tea plants: sandy soil, a sub-tropical climate and lots of annual rainfall. For various reasons, almost all of these tea plantations failed. The one survivor was Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville, where Dr. Charles Shepard began the commercial production of tea in 1888.
Like tea plantations the world over, Pinehurst grew Camellia Sinensis, from which all teas are naturally derived. “There are only three basic teas in the world,” explained Hall. “There’s green tea, black tea, and oolong. Everything is an offshoot of one of those three basic teas. And they all come from the same plant.”
Where does Southern-style sweet tea come into the timeline? This is where the history gets a little, well, granulated. Tidbits of information about tea, iced tea, sweetened tea and pre-sweetened tea appear in 19th-century cookbooks and newspapers up and down the East Coast, but no one reference confirms a creation date for Southern-style sweet tea.
According to a “sweet tea expose” by culinary historian Robert F. Moss for Charleston City Paper in 2013, a reference to “iced tea” appeared in the Boston Journal on July 6, 1868, while tea, sweetened while hot, was described as a fashionable drink in Gotham, in a syndicated newspaper piece that same year. Were the creators of sweet tea living in Massachusetts and New York City of all places?
More commonly accepted as the first reference to sweetened tea is an iced tea recipe in the cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, organized by Marion Cabell Tyree and published in 1879. The recipe states that the tea should be brewed in the morning then left to stand until dinner, at which time one should “fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar.” Unlike today’s Southern-style sweet tea, the sugar was added after the tea had cooled.
According to the historic timeline propounded by Summerville and its chamber of commerce, sweet tea’s connection to the town was solidified in 1890. The proof? A list of provisions for a Confederate reunion here that included 880 gallons of iced tea and 600 pounds of sugar. There was no indication that the sugar was being purchased for blending into the tea, however, but who are we to quibble with Summerville for tying them together?
Another pivotal event in the sweet tea timeline occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century. “Iced tea was really discovered in 1904 at the World’s Fair. One of the pavilions was the Indian Pavilion from India, and they were trying to sell their hot tea on a really hot day,” said Hall. “People were like, ‘What, are you crazy?’ So they decided to add ice and see what happened.” After that, said Hall, iced tea became more broadly popular.
Coincidentally, Dr Shepard won “Best Tea” at the same World’s Fair for an oolong tea, but as far as we can tell it was not sweet tea. Shepard continued growing teas commercially until his death in 1915. After that, the gardens at Pinehurst grew wild and were not harvested again until the arrival of a research and development team from Lipton Tea in the 1960s. The team moved the tea plants to Wadmalaw Island, twenty miles southwest of Charleston, where it began developing experimental teas.
Lipton sold the Wadmalaw property to Hall and a partner in 1987, and the duo created American Classic Tea. In 2003, Bigelow Tea purchased the operation in partnership with Hall and renamed it Charleston Tea. With the exception of a handful of very small growers, Charleston Tea is the only commercial tea plantation in America. Today, Charleston Tea runs free tours and offers iced tea samples to visitors.
These samples are a direct link to the past because they are sourced from cuttings from the original Pinehurst tea plants, which means they are the mother plant. They are not new plants cultivated from the seeds of their predecessors. “The one thing about tea plants is they survive for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Hall.
So, when did sweet tea become synonymous with the South? Honestly, it’s hard to say. Iced tea became increasingly popular across the South as access to electricity and refrigeration – and ice – expanded throughout the mid-century. Media references to pre-sweetened tea as a distinctly Southern phenomenon began appearing in the latter half of the 1900s.
Sweet tea’s connection to the South was officially confirmed in 2003 when a representative of the Georgia House of Delegates introduced a bill – an apparent April Fool’s joke – requiring that all Georgia restaurants serving tea must serve sweet tea.
Open since 1871, Guerin’s Pharmacy & Soda Fountain borders the Summerville town square. Owner Barbara Dunning knows the soda fountain has served sweet tea since at least 1994, when she took over. The soda fountain dates to 1927, so it’s possible sweet tea was served prior to the 1990s. Every morning her team brews one pitcher of sweet tea and one of unsweetened to start the day. Flavored syrups add to the fun. “We have cherry, strawberry and blueberry that we can add to our drinks. That includes the tea,” said Dunning. “Probably the most popular that we’ll offer from time to time is the cherry tea.”
Guerin’s is in the thick of things during the Sweet Tea Festival, now in its eighth year. Held the third Saturday of September, it falls on September 21st this year. “It’s kind of like a blown up food-truck rodeo,” said Molly Willard, Director of Development and Promotions for Summerville Dream, a member of the non-profit National Main Street Association and the festival organizer.
The festival is free, but for maximum appreciation you’ll want to buy a commemorative mug, which allows you to sample tea from each food vendor. You vote for your favorite, and a winner is declared at the end of the festivities.
Rachelle’s Island Tea from Orangeburg was the People’s Choice winner last year. “Let me tell ya’,” said Willard. “That stuff was the jam, and they’re coming back this year with a vengeance to try and reclaim the People’s Choice.”
So there you have it. Summerville does have a legitimate claim as the birthplace of American tea. As for sweet tea, well, if birthplace is synonymous with love, care-giving and pride, then Summerville wins hands-down.
Keep the story of sweet tea going strong by attending the festival, buying a mug, sampling the teas to find your own jam—er, sweet tea—this year.
By Amy C. Balfour