An overview of Iced Tea
Tea has been around and enjoyed globally for more than 5000 years, having first been discovered in China but very quickly becoming a staple in cultures all over the world.
Tea was (and continues to be) one of the biggest imports out of China these days, having been a key part of early trade relations with the rest of Asia as well as trade with Europe and later the United States.
Interestingly enough, however, iced tea wasn’t ever really something people drank until relatively recently. The overwhelming majority of tea beverages were enjoyed hot – sometimes boiling hot – it wasn’t until one of the newest places on the planet to start growing tea commercially decided to cool things down that it became the global phenomenon that it is today.
Below we highlight a little bit of the history of iced tea as well as a couple of tips and tricks to brew a world-class cup of this amazing summertime treat. We later move into a couple of fun recipes that put a twist on traditional iced tea, giving you plenty of opportunities to branch out and explore different types of beverages that might deepen your passion for iced tea even more so.
Let’s dig right in!
A Quick History of Iced Tea
As we highlighted above, human beings have been drinking tea for 5000 years (give or take) – which is what makes the relatively recent “discovery” of iced tea occurring in 1795 so incredible.
For one reason or another, no one throughout the 4800+ years that tea existed thought to cool things down and serve tea over ice until an enterprising entrepreneur in the late 18th century decided to do exactly that.
According to historians, it was a French explorer and botanist by the name of Andre Michaux that brought iced tea to the world. He decided to settle down in South Carolina (a region in the southern United States) and one of the few places in the US that tea was grown and continues to be grown commercially in the states.
This Frenchman decided to bring tea into South Carolina, but also decided to bring in camellias, gardenias, and azaleas and plant them all on his property around Charleston. It didn’t take long for these exotic plants to catch on the with the wealthy throughout South Carolina, and before you know it all of Charleston was filled with these plants – with tea plants, in particular, spreading like wildfire.
The exact date of the first time iced tea was served is obviously a little bit fuzzy, but many people peg this event as occurring somewhere in 1795. Michaux was known to be a dedicated entertainer, frequently hosting parties at his estate called the Middleton Barony, and historians believe these events were where iced tea was first served.
The drink obviously proved to be incredibly popular and is now regarded as a southern staple, though it took a bit of time for its popularity to spread from South Carolina to the rest of the American colonies and then later into Europe and the remainder of the world.
However, by the mid-1800s there were quite a few recipes cropping up in both English and American cookbooks showing how to brew tea and then serve it over ice. Green tea punches, in particular, were very popular (especially those mixed with alcohol), but finding any examples of black tea being served over ice are relatively difficult throughout this period of time.
King George IV was apparently a huge fan of iced tea, so much so that a popular recipe was spread throughout the United States as well as the United Kingdom described as “The Regents Punch” – a mixture of green tea and spirits that was popular at parties and state events.
Interestingly enough, a lot of the history of iced tea closely parallels the invention of and later commercialization of refrigeration technology. The icehouse and then later the icebox – as well as the commercialization of ice blocks – really started to take hold in the early part of the 19th century, providing individuals easy access to ice even in the middle of summer.
Folks inevitably started to cool down their iced tea to beat the summertime heat, leading to this drink being particularly popular in the summer months (especially down south).
By 1839 a southern cookbook that became a staple throughout this region of the United States, a title called The Kentucky Housewife, describes a simple and straightforward approach to making “tea punch” that has basically served as the backbone for all iced tea recipes to follow.
The instructions called for an individual to make a pint and a half of a very strong tea, straining at and then pouring it (while boiling hot) over a 1 ¼ pound “loaf of sugar”. Individuals were that instructed to mix in half a pint of sweet cream while stirring the entire concoction, waiting until it began to cloud. From there they were recommended to either serve it as is or mix in a bottle of champagne – almost always over extra cubes of ice.
Southern sweet tea at its first recipe in recorded history submitted in 1884 by a Mrs. DA Lincoln, then the director of the Boston Cooking School in Massachusetts.
She recommended that individuals first make their favorite batch of tea extra strong, straining it from the “grounds”, and then cooling it to room temperature over an hour or an hour and half of sitting out on the counter. From there, individuals were too poor that tea over to cubes a block sugar in a single glass that had been filled with broken ice. It was recommended that the individual served it with a slice of lemon, too.
40 years later at the World’s Fair in St. Louis iced tea took on an entirely new life of its own. The summer of 1904 was extremely hot, with World’s Fair goers not at all interested in imbibing in hot beverages but lining up – sometimes in blocks-long lines – to drink iced tea.
A man byte name of Richard Blechynden apparently recognized the sky-high demand for an iced tea while running the East Indian Pavilion while acting as the India Tea Commissioner at the World’s Fair. He brewed large batches of tea, turned the bottles upside down, and ran them through iced lead pipes before serving the beverage 100% free of charge – bringing more people into the exhibit and attracting them with an ice-cold beverage.
The publicity stunt caught the attention of the American and international press and before you know it iced tea was the hottest cold beverage on the planet!
Prohibition would help to popularize iced tea even more so, and World War I as well as World War II would also help to improve the overall commercialization of “powdered” iced tea that was sent to our frontline troops in Europe as well as the Pacific.
Today iced tea is beloved by millions all over the planet, with different regional variations and flavor combinations proving that it isn’t just a delicious traditional drink but also one that has a lot of flexibility when combined with different ingredients or types of tea.
How to Make Great Iced Tea
The secret to making great iced tea is to start off with top-tier tea leaves, loose leaf tea leaves ideally (though tea bags can work in a pinch, too).
It’s always a good idea to start with a very strong type of tea as it the entire concoction is going to be watered down somewhat by the inclusion of the ice cubes that will inevitably meltdown. Regardless of the type of tea, you are making you’ll want to first boil up at least 8 cups or so, using the same amount of tea leaves or teabags you would have used in a 10 cup or 12 cups batch.
From there you’ll want to allow your tea to steep for about six minutes (the extra time really draws out the flavor and strengthens the batch) before allowing it to sit and cool after you have strained the tea leaves or removed the teabags.
The next step is to put the tea inside of your refrigerator and allow it to cool as much as possible. If you pour it over ice while still at a relatively hot temperature the ice will melt almost immediately and you’ll end up with cold tea rather than iced.
When it’s time to serve makeup about a cup of sugar in the entire batch of tea. You’ll then want to for each individual glass of iced tea out over cubes of ice, garnishing with a slice of lemon if you have one handy.
As far as interesting iced tea recipes are concerned, the sky really is the limit. You can add orange zest, blackberries or strawberries, cinnamon or lavender, vanilla and mint, or even just a bit of ginger and lemon to the mixture to create something quite unlike your traditional glass of iced tea – but something really fun to drink, too!
There’s always the opportunity to “spike” your iced tea with a bit of alcohol. Most people choose bourbon or whiskey, though “clear spirits” sometimes work just as well.