Reading the leaves: How Southern is sweet tea?

Photo: Tom McGovern Photo: Tom McGovern

Like any good Southern recipe, the origins of sweet tea are about as clear as an oversteeped pitcher of Lipton. Southerners of all stripes clamor for their own little piece of the beverage’s lore.

Central Virginia, it seems, doesn’t have much of a stake. Thomas Jefferson certainly loved his tea—his financial records show he purchased nearly 20 pounds of it annually, and of all sorts of varieties—but he likely never iced it. And Alexandria Tyre, marketing and communications manager for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, confirms “sweet tea wasn’t a thing until well after Jefferson’s death.”

Tyre says according to her team’s “unscientific survey,” the first recipe for sweet tea was published in 1879. That would have been a recipe by Texan Marion Cabell Tyree in a cookbook coincidentally titled Housekeeping in Old Virginia. But that’s hardly the end of this yarn.

Jenna Mason, manager of the Southern Foodways Alliance, points out that Summerville, South Carolina, has for years claimed to be the “birthplace” of sweet tea. But culinary historian Robert Moss has found little evidence to that claim, saying it was mostly a marketing angle drawn from the fact that Summerville was an important early tea-growing location. Alas, Moss says, “Yankees were drinking sweetened iced tea as far back as the 1860s, two decades before [they] plucked the first tea leaf in Summerville.”

Whatever the origins of the beverage, most people agree sweetened iced tea isn’t the same as sweet tea, and according to Moss the first recipe that dictated sweetening a large quantity of hot tea before ever pouring it in a glass came somewhere around the late 1920s or early ’30s.

In the 2010s in C’ville, you don’t have to go far for a decent glass of sweet tea. Whether washing down barbecue at Red Hub or pairing the bevvie with local grub at Brookville, that balance of sugar and tea-leaf bitterness will never be far from your summer dining table.

“I love sweet tea,” Brookville chef/owner Harrison Keevil says. “And we sell quite a bit—a lot on the weekends.”

Keevil, whose Southern-inspired cooking belies his British ancestry, admits to a bit of blasphemy when it comes to his sweet tea. He sweetens the base with simple syrup (with or without mint infusion) on request.

“Sweet tea can be cloying. It’s about finding that balance between the tea and the sweet,” he says. “I do it with simple syrup because you can control the tea itself and the sweetener.”

Newly minted

Want to take your sweet tea to the next level? Infuse it with mint. Want to take your mint to the next level? Grow it yourself. “The beauty of mint is it is very easy to grow,” Brookville Restaurant chef/owner Harrison Keevil says.

Just remember two things, and you should be good to go. One, pot your mint. “If you plant it in the ground, it will take over,” Keevil says. At Brookville, he’s even thinking of reserving an entire garden for mint.

Two, carefully consider the type of mint you’d like to grow. Most likely, you’ll want a traditional peppermint or spearmint, but varieties such as pineapple, pennyroyal, ginger and horsemint abound. In addition to Kentucky Colonel spearmint, a favorite of Keevil’s is mojito mint.—S.G.