Spilling the Sweet Tea

Spilling the Sweet Tea

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How to make a Southern staple that’s simple but full of deep roots.

If you’re not from any of the Southern states, sweet tea is just another beverage. If you’re from the South, it’s a religion.

“Sweet tea is really a Southern thing. It’s a Texas thing big time,” says Jay Rathmann, owner/chef of BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Co. in Sparks. “I’ve spent time in Texas, and sweet tea down there is almost viscous. You can put it in your engine.”

Rathmann also has traveled to New Orleans and other Southern cities where there are variations of the drink, but, for him, none compare to the Lone Star State’s syrupy version.

“We sell about 50 gallons of sweet tea a week,” Rathmann says. “I have friends in Virginia, and when they come to BJ’s, they say our tea is not that sweet.”

The Virginians just might be able to stake the claim of being sweet tea sweetness experts.

Sweetness in the Deep South

According to the website What’s Cooking America, one of the oldest sweet tea recipes was printed in an 1879 cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree. The recipe was called Ice Tea, but was made by steeping green tea, adding granulated sugar to the hot water, then a squeeze of lemon, and serving it over ice. That’s the difference between traditional sweet tea (adding sweetener to the hot tea water) and what we tend to do in the West (adding sugar or artificial sweetener to our iced tea).

Since then, Southerners have perfected their own versions of sweet tea but remain loyal to the basic ingredients: black tea, sugar, and ice. One fact we can all agree on? Sweet tea should always be poured over ice.

“When you say ‘tea’ in the West, you mean tea. In the South, you mean sweet tea,” says Walter Alexander, co-owner of Pine State Biscuits in Reno and Portland, Ore.

Alexander is originally from North Carolina, so he knows sweet tea but caters more to the Western palate. Pine State Biscuits uses Lipton or Luzianne black tea for the restaurant’s beverage. For the sweetener, Alexander goes against tradition and uses honey.

Rathmann’s sweet tea is meant to complement BJ’s pulled pork sandwiches and Cheddar grits, and Pine State Biscuits’ version pairs nicely with its homemade biscuit and fried chicken sandwiches. It can’t always be found in restaurants in the West. However, in the land of Dixie, sweet tea is served in just about every restaurant and fast food location, and at every meal.

Sweet and Spiked

For both Rathmann and Alexander, sweet tea also serves as a great base for some experimentation.

The folks at BJ’s will add fresh mint to its recipe, or combine the sweet tea with freshly squeezed lemonade to make Arnold Palmers. Pine State Biscuits’s staff uses sweet tea as a base for some of its cocktails, such as the John Daly, which is an Arnold Palmer mixed with Monopolowa vodka.

“Sweet tea is really great on its own, and people in the South even add bourbon for a quick Brown Derby drink,” Alexander says. “They really work together, and the sweetness goes hand in hand like Jack and Coke.”

Part of Christina Nellemann’s family is from San Antonio, Texas, so she is familiar with its massive (and mandatory) cups of sweet tea.

Southern Sweet Tea

(adapted from recipe from Jay Rathmann, owner/chef, BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Co. in Sparks. Makes ½ gallon)

3 cups boiling water
3 regular-sized black or orange pekoe tea bags
½ to ¾ cup cane sugar
5 cups cold water
Ice cubes

In a saucepan, pour boiling water over tea bags. Set aside and let steep 5 minutes. Remove tea bags. In a large pitcher, place sugar and pour warm tea over it, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add 5 cups cold water and stir until mixed. Chill in refrigerator for several hours and serve in tall glasses over ice cubes.

Kitty Hawk

(courtesy of Walter Alexander, co-owner, Pine State Biscuits in Reno. Serves 1)

3 ounces Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon
8 ounces sweet tea (see recipe above)
3 ounces lemon-flavored sparkling water (such as Perrier)
Ice cubes
Lemon wedge

Add bourbon to a 16-ounce Mason jar filled with ice. Fill remainder of glass with sweet tea almost to fill line. Add lemon-flavored sparkling water to the top. Garnish with a lemon wedge.


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Discover new products, thriving traditions, or exciting food events, festivals, restaurants, and markets – all of the things that are helping to make us a true culinary destination.