Soft drinks can be as wonderful and delicious as cocktails, often serve as ingredients for cocktails, and are a great choice for times when you abstain, entertain friends who don’t drink alcohol, or need something for the children. Of all the soft drinks, sodas, and ades, none are more American than Sweet Tea, that delectable Southern Summer treat that, originally, started out as a whiskey drink.
Sweet Tea really was a whiskey drink, but not entirely. This refreshing pick-me-up and crowd pleasing cook out staple was once a supreme luxury when first created, or first recorded, because of the scarcity of ice in the Deep South at the time of Reconstruction. It was made with green tea, the favored variety of the day, and served out of large bowls as one does with punch. It was also consumed with whiskey and mint, an early version of what would become a Mint Julip.
Today, Sweet Tea has no whiskey in it, and the Mint Julip has no tea in it. Also gone is the green tea. During World War II, the places where the green tea grows were occupied by the Japanese, so Americans, by and large, switched to black tea imported from India. While green tea is again readily available, and as popular as any variety of tea, black tea is still the go to for Sweet Tea. Our choice is English Breakfast from The Jasmine Pearl Tea Company, but you could just as easily use whatever you got, or go traditional and use green tea.
If choosing tea is relatively easy, making the tea is problematic. Americans struggle with tea. They also have a history with it. Tea fell out of favor right after some irritated colonists threw it all in the harbor, and subsequently chased the Redcoats away. Since then, tea really hasn’t found the favor, or returned to the level of favor, of it’s piping hot counterpart, coffee, but the cold version, iced tea, and specifically Sweet Tea, is purely American. We love our iced tea, we just have no idea how to make it or serve it.
Go to any restaurant and order iced tea with your meal. What you get is a glass of cold tea with ice, and a pile of little sugar packets. No one who grew up in the last hundred years doesn’t remember trying, and failing, to get sugar to melt in cold tea, then, after a yeoman's effort, using the straw to suck up the granules from the bottom of the glass and letting it mix on the way for a gritty, inconsistently sweet sip. Then there’s the matter of brewing the tea, and the curiosity of “instant tea.”
How do you make instant tea? Add hot water? Well, isn’t that also how you make tea, like, not the instant kind but the kind in a little bag? With a string on it? Or maybe you use loose leaf tea. Whatever, it all works, but, tea bag or loose leaf, the tea must be steeped properly, and the temperature of the water you use is different for each style of tea. The best bet is following the manufacturer's suggestions. The Jasmine Pearl Tea Company recommends steeping their English Breakfast at 200 degrees Fahrenheit, 93.3 degrees Celsius. Regardless of your choice, however, boiling water should not be used. It’s too hot, especially if using tea bags because boiling water will also steep the bag, and that’s not tasty. Once you know the temperature, hot but not boiling, use the amount of tea as per manufacturer’s recommendation. The Jasmine Pearl Tea Company recommends one heaping teaspoon per 8 ounces of water steeped for 3 - 5 minutes for their English Breakfast tea.
Iced tea requires patience, not ice. Some recipes call for dousing your tea with a mound of ice, which immediately melts, the subsequent water that once was ice is then warmed by the tea which remains hot but is now also watered down. Don’t do that. Let the tea cool on its own, but, before it does, let’s consider sweetener. Do we add sugar to the hot tea and let it cool, or do we let the tea cool and sweeten it with syrup? We favor the latter, only because we make alot of tea, and don’t always use it for Sweet Tea. It also means we make our Sweet Tea by the glass, not the pitcher, so a liter of unsweetened iced tea may be more versatile, but making Sweet Tea glass by glass for a crowd isn’t efficient, especially if you want to join your guests. If you know you need that much Sweet Tea, it may just be easier and wiser to add some sugar to the pot while it’s still hot. If so, add sugar a little at a time, tasting as you go, until it's as you like it, then let it cool.
Sweet Tea should be very, very sweet, or so some say. We stoutly disagree. Proponents of overly sweet tea suffer from too much canned cola, and, even if you’re used to beverages on the very sweet side, think of Sweet Tea as any other mixed drink, even if it doesn’t have booze, and sweeten it until it tastes balanced, not syrupy. Use a restrained hand with the lemon, too. It's optional, but if using lemon, and we highly recommend that you do, go easy because in tea it can quickly dominate making the result taste more like an Arnold Palmer than Sweet Tea. Then drink it. Those who’ve never tried homemade Sweet Tea with fresh lemon may be amazed at how good it is, and may never buy a bottle of Arizona, or a jar of Nestea ever again. Just make sure, when you enjoy it, that it’s super cold. The Sweet Tea pioneers who, in the 1800s, spared no expense in getting ice to Georgia just so they could make their tea would most definitely approve, just as long as you give it a little bit of effort.
Build in a collins glass with ice, stir to mix, and garnish with a lemon wedge and some mint.
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