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Senior Correspondent

The Problem with Sweet Tea

The Problem with Sweet Tea


I’ve accepted that good old, reliable coffee has taken a trip to Disneyland. That honest cup of joe has been caramel-coated, chocolate-syruped and candy-sprinkled. 

But I fear that the same fate has befallen my beloved southern iced tea.

I spotted one sign of this at a local coffee shop. The menu described an iced concoction of spiced green tea and milk, topped with optional chai-spiced whipped cream. It was such a fascinating train wreck of a beverage description that I had to sample the fully equipped version. Don’t worry — I’m a food writer and the calories are tax deductible.

The drink was a foggy, unappealing white-green with about two inches of whipped cream floating on top. There was little actual tea flavor and it was very sweet — not in a good way, but in a coat-the-mouth way that made me want a drink after my drink.

With that beverage, it begins. Iced tea has been frappu-fied.

At one time, nobody farther north than Virginia knew about sweet southern iced tea. People from Chicago or Milwaukee would spend their visits south in an amusing state of beverage bafflement. Their faces said it all: “It’s tea, but it’s cold, but it’s already sweet, and it’s January. What?” 

On their home turf, northerners couldn’t deal with the concept of iced tea. My husband and I found that out after a whale-watching trip off Cape Cod. We were parched. We needed iced tea. What the server brought was obviously hot tea that had been steeped from a bag in a pot, then poured over ice. When we asked for more, they brought a new glass instead of using a pitcher, which should have been a red flag. At the end, we discovered refills were not free and we’d spent more on iced tea than on our food. 

Now, beverage manufacturers have jumped on the idea that tea is healthy. Bottles and jugs of iced tea impersonators are everywhere. You can purchase tea spiked with ginseng or “naturally sweetened” with an herb or a cactus plant. Teas are flavored with quince or mango, and promise long life. There are cartoon grannies or pictures of peaceful tea fields on the labels. 

One brand of bottled tea says that “filtered water, tea leaves, and vitamin C are its only ingredients.” So make your own, and put a slice of lemon in it, I say.

I’m not even going to talk about the alleged iced tea that spews from fast-food drink dispensers. I will only say that I’ve seen other liquids of a similar color in my life, and none of them were iced tea.

It’s pitiful to consider that people all over the country are drinking this stuff and thinking that they are fully experiencing the joys of southern iced tea. Teas from spouts and bottles are no more like the beverage of my heritage than the Cold Duck I guzzled in college is like Veuve Clicquot.

There are many good reasons that traditional iced tea is sweet, besides being pretty darn good. Before everyone had an icebox, sugar acted as a preservative. But possibly the best reason is the classic balance of sweet and savory flavors — sweet iced tea is nature’s perfect mate to spicy, smoky pork barbecue. 

Southern iced tea is not flavored with anything that rightfully belongs in potpourri. And, please, stop with the comments about the teeth-aching level of sugar in our tea. It’s a little hard to take complaints seriously from someone holding a Cinderella’s Castle of coffee drinks.

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