Sweet tea confuses the rest of the world. Of course, Southerners immediately confer the tea in question as “iced” tea. It’s a Southern thing, the ability to discern the essence of a proper libation with the mere utterance of two words: sweet tea.
The basic ingredients are tea, water and sugar. Other additions are superfluous to diehards, but it seems everybody has a slightly different take on the classic beverage.
The rise of iced tea as a mainstay in Southern beverages owes something to the proliferation of refrigeration beginning in the 1920s and the ensuing availability of ice.Adding ice to the tea already made popular in large part by Luzianne and Lipton, which both launched tea around the year 1900 (although Lipton already had a presence in Great Britain), became the drink of choice to staunch the unbearably hot summers.
Baby boomers hooked on the taste of New Orleans’ own Luzianne no doubt owe their preference to the memorable Burl Ives, who touted the elixir on national television during the ’60s and ’70s. He thumped the glass of iced tea with his fingernail and declared the tea was “clear as a bell.”
John Newton of Russellville, himself a member of the babyboomer generation, wasn’t influenced by Ives. Newton is a Lipton man.
He is fastidious about the ice, however.
“It’s all in the ice,” Newton said. “Actually, the three places in town who have the best tea have the best ice (that is to say the softest), and they all have Sweet’N Low, not the impostor brands,” he added.
Newton notes that the tea served at his top three establishments, C & D Drug Store, Newton’s Pharmacy and West Main Donuts, is mild.
“They’re just right and don’t have to be weakened down with water,” he said.
His sister, Jan Newton Hickey, doesn’t touch sweet tea, she said. Still, she has friends who rave about the tea served at Cross Creek Sandwich Shop in Conway and the green tea at Panera Bread.
Other readers also find the chilled muse in local restaurants. Debbie Moody Weibler of Ola swears by Oumami’s sweet iced tea.
“It’s totally awesome,” she said of the Japanese restaurant in Russellville.
Dewayne’s Barbecue and Grill in Dover is a favorite of Joy Miller.
“They’ve just good sweet tea, and it’s very refreshing,” she said and added, “but we have a practice of always asking, no matter the establishment, if the tea is fresh brewed - as in that day.”
Miller’s method of making up a batch of iced tea is a bit unorthodox.
“I put the sweetener in over the ice and let the tea brew over it,” she said. “I use Splenda sometimes, but if I want a really good pitcher of sweet iced tea, I use 3/4 cup to a full cup of sugar.”
In addition to measuring the sugar or sweetener, Miller said the proper tea consistency also depends heavily on the water.
“At our home in Florida, the amount of tea I use is about half what I use at home.”
No special tools are necessary to make sweet tea as a rule, but Miller prefers using a tea maker.
Joan Nielson of Little Rock agrees that the Mr. Coffee Iced Tea Maker is the best at making perfect tea every time, and that, she says is her “humble opinion.”
Hot Spring County home extension agent Cheryl Maxwell of Malvern doesn’t think you can get the superior tea she makes at any restaurant.
“I don’t use any sugar,” she said, “just one family-size bag of Luzianne combined with an individual-size bag of Bigelow Plantation Mint. It’s so refreshing. Be sure not to brew any longer than five minutes, and I always use spring water.”
A dark secret some Southerners harbor is that they actually prefer drinking hot tea.
Susan Gore of Russellville was introduced to Darjeeling tea from India while she was visiting Great Britain.She noted that Cracker Barrel and Country Cupboard in town offer the tea. She’s unsure whether the iced tea is also Darjeeling at Cracker Barrel. She’s never thought to ask because she isn’t a fan of iced tea.
Betty LaGrone of Dover claims she’s no help, either.
“I love plain hot tea,” she said. “I do mix black andgreen, but I don’t use spices, add flavors, lemon or sugar.”
The younger set, as is tradition, likes to cut their chops (or sink their lips) on the avant-garde, and the growing specialty tea boom is supported in large part by the palates of the up-and-coming generation of tea drinkers.
Sarah Martin of London, an incoming freshman at Arkansas Tech University, plans to take her tea with her. Her indulgence is Teavana, a company with a storefront in Little Rock’s Park Plaza Mall.
“I love their exotic tea so much I usually just order it online,” she said.
Kristi Crissup of Russellville, and a native to boot, never wasa big fan of tea, but her 17-year-old twin boys are hooked on Peace Tea.
“It comes in a tall can with a big peace sign on it and is very hip with the kids,” she said. “I think the boys usually buy theirs at the local gas station They’ve never been tea drinkers, but they think the stuff is the bomb.”
Crissup has tasted the tea and thinks it is pretty good, she said.
“That’s coming from a person who doesn’t generally like tea, so that’s pretty high praise,” she added.
Caitlin Tackett, 17, of Russellville is a fan of traditional sweet tea and said the best she’s ever tasted is made by fellow church member John Mullinax, who expressed shock that his tea would elicit such an enthusiastic nod of approval from a teenager.
“What I know I learned from my aunts Linda Lamberson of Russellville and Darlene Hayes of Cabot,” he said. “I spent my summers between the two of them, and they used the same recipe to make sweet tea. I haven’t changed that one bit.”
Mullinax is one of those diehards.
“I keep my tea simple,” he said. “I like lemonade, but I don’t like lemons in my tea.”
Learning to make the family sweet tea is a ritual many Southerners like Mullinax share.
“The best tea in the world was made by my sweet uncle when I was growing up,” Russellville resident Rita Goodman said. “My mother worked, and he did the lunch cooking. He made the tea and added 1 cup of sugar per half gallon. It was delicious.”
Lydia Arangua, also of Russellville, links sweet tea with her favorite aunt.
“My dad would visit me every year from Chicago and take me to visit relatives I didn’t know in the country around the Fort Worth area,” she said. “My auntie’s was the only one I enjoyed visiting, and she made tea right out of her garden.”
Arangua can’t put her finger on the precise ingredient of the memorable taste.
“It might have been mint or chamomile with a hint of licorice, but Honey Vanilla Chamomile tea by Celestial Seasonings comes pretty close,” she said.
Combining tradition with cutting-edge products, Brenda Harrison of Russellville has settled on her own twist of the perfect tea.
“The best tea, no contest, is Tazo Passion Tea,” she said. “I use two Tazo tea bags with three family-size bags of Luzianne decaf. I can brew it, microwave it or make sun tea; any approach is delicious. It’s even better with a fresh lemon wedge and a long stem of mint from my garden.”
Terr y “ Tex” Turner of Washington, D.C., was raised in Sulphur Rock. His job at the Pentagon has taken him far from his roots, but he learned the proper way to make sweet tea and continues to make it today. After all, the sun really heats up all the concrete in the big city, he said.
So, how’s about some iced tea? It’s gonna be another scorcher.
TEX TURNER’S SWEET TEA Ingredients: 3 Lipton tea bags 1 cup sugar 1 quart water to boil in pot 1 quart ice water 2-quart pitcher Directions:
Place tea bags in 1 quart waterand bring to frothy boil. Pour a full cup of sugar into pitcher and dump the boiling tea on top of the sugar - flash dissolving it easily - then pour another quart of ice water on top of that. Stir and enjoy.
JOHN MULLINAX’S SWEET TEA Ingredients: 2 family-size Lipton tea bags A pot of water 1 cup sugar, plus a little extra Cold water Gallon container Directions:
I put 2 family-size Lipton tea bags into the water and bring to a boil. Turn off the water and add a little over a cup of sugar. Add cold water to fill a gallon container.
GLORIOUS TEA Submitted by York Family Catering of Russellville Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 cup white grape juice 3/4 cup instant lemonade 1 family-size tea bag 3 cups water to boil, more to complete gallonDirections:
Boil 3 cups water and brew tea bag until sufficiently steeped. Add sugar to gallon container and pour in tea, grape juice and lemonade. At this point, the concentrate may be frozen to make at a later date. Simply fill the gallon container with water a few hours before serving. The tea is good served with fresh mint.