Sweet tea is the signature drink of the South. This super-sweet, ice cold beverage can be found in pitchers in restaurants and kitchen tables all across the region. As Dolly Parton’s character in Steel Magnolias said, it's the “house wine of the South.” It’s such a staple that many Southerners simply use the word “tea” to mean iced sweetened tea.
The history of sweet tea isn’t entirely clear, but it appears to have been an institution as far back as ice. Printed recipes date back to at least 1839, when The Kentucky Housewife was published. Sweet tea was generally made with green tea until World War II, when the U.S. lost access to its major sources of green tea. Since then, it has been customary to use black tea.
Obviously, heat is a major factor in the popularity of sweet tea in the South. In the days before air-conditioning, the best way to cool off on a hot day in the South was with an ice cold beverage. That’s why there’s no better way to greet a guest in the South than by bringing out a pitcher of sweet tea.
Why so sweet? That’s a little less clear, but Southerners seem to have a stronger sweet tooth than their Northern neighbors. Southern desserts tend to be sweeter. And Southerners invented both Coke and Pepsi.
Actually, the better question is why has it taken the rest of the country so long to catch on to the wonder of sweet tea? In 2008, McDonald’s rolled out its version of sweet tea nation-wide, so it’s possible that a nationwide surge in sweet tea popularity is right around the corner.