Introduction: Southern-style Sweet Tea for Summertime

Picture of Southern-style Sweet Tea for Summertime

When I moved to Boston from South Carolina, I would on occasion go into otherwise-reputable restaurants and order sweet tea, just on principle. Most of the time, the server would give me a confused look and say, "I can bring you sugar with your iced tea..." and I would then explain how proper sweet tea is made.
It's dead-simple: make tea and put the sugar in while it's hot, then cool and ice it. That's all. Maybe some mint, maybe a bit of lemon.

But some sort of magic happens, and you end up with a pitcher of this beverage about which poems are written, which brings to mind slow lazy sitting-on-the-porch days and gracefully sprawling oak trees, which prompted legislators in Georgia to try to pass a law decreeing that any restaurant that offered iced tea on the menu had to offer sweet tea.

God rested on the seventh day, but early in the morning,
before the sun strained into the Southern sky,
she made sweet tea from scratch. She boiled the water
in a black kettle, put in the orange pekoe bags
and let them stand as the water perked, and then
she did what gods know what to do: she heaped in the Dixie
Crystal sugar while the brew was still warm as the day.

- From "Sweet Tea", by John Lane

Step 1: Boil Water, Add Tea, Steep.

Picture of Boil Water, Add Tea, Steep.

Think of this as not so much instructions as the steps in a cultural ritual.

Some people have special iced-tea makers -- one of my going-away-to-college gifts from an aunt was an iced-tea maker just so that I could make sweet tea without even having to walk to the kitchen. For much of my first two years there, I carried a bottle of homemade high-octane sweet tea with me to class, instead of coffee. Double strong, double sweet, it was dangerous stuff.

You could use a coffeepot if you're desperate and don't mind your tea tasting like burnt coffee. You could use a teakettle and a good pitcher. Or you could use a big pot; that's what I do, these days, since I don't have the right kind of pitcher.

Boil the water, then turn off the heat and add the bags of tea.

For tea, my grandmothers use Lipton or Luzianne, the big iced-tea bags for making several quarts at a time. One of my grandmothers adds a small bag or two of Constant Comment. For the ~3 quarts of sweet tea I made yesterday, I used two big Lipton iced-tea bags, two small bags of roasted chicory (herbal) tea, and one bag of barley tea from the Korean market up the street. (Not "authentic", but very tasty in a toasted-grain kinda way.) Adding a bag of some kind of spicy chai also works well.

I brew mine a bit stronger than the instructions call for, 10 minutes or so.

Step 2: Sweeten Your Tea.

Picture of Sweeten Your Tea.

This is the magic bit. While the tea is still hot, add sugar.

I don't recall ever measuring the sugar for sweet tea. You could try, I suppose. Maybe it would work. But I can't tell you how much sugar to put in your tea. Sweeten it until it tastes good, and remember that it'll taste sweeter when it's hot than it will after it's chilled and iced.

My grandmothers use scoops of white sugar; I use brown sugar and honey. This time around, I put in what looked like a couple handfuls of brown sugar and a big round spoonful of honey, for three quarts of tea.

As an aside: I get tubs of local honey at the Berkeley Bowl, and have discovered that if I keep the honey in the fridge, it doesn't crystallize, doesn't attract ants, and has a really neat caramel-taffy texture.

Now is also a good time to add mint, if you have some around. Crush the leaves a bit before putting them into the warm tea.

Step 3: Chill Your Sweet Tea, Then Drink It Iced. Rejoice!

Picture of Chill Your Sweet Tea, Then Drink It Iced. Rejoice!

My dad told me a story once of the first time he met my mother's extended family, up in north Mississippi. They'd come out to visit out on one of the farms, and he said everyone woke up very early, worked 'til noon, came in for lunch, went out for another couple of hours, and then came back around 2 or 3pm for tea. "Tea" was served in silver mint julep cups, and on his first sip he was rather startled to realize that it was, in fact, mostly bourbon. Being taken on a high-speed tour of the dirt roads around the farm after this was apparently quite an adventure. (His words were "I thought I was going to die.") This is not that kind of tea, but it has still kept me up late many a night at Waffle House and fueled roadtrips and conversations and all kinds of adventures.

I used to have a big plastic pitcher for keeping sweet tea, but plastic is not the way to go if you're going to keep the tea around for more than a couple of hours. (Works fine if you're making a big batch to serve with dinner or a picnic, though.)

Instead, glass mason jars are an excellent solution, and just awesome in and of themselves. Decant the tea off into the jars, but leave enough room to dilute it a little if you've brewed your tea strong; add water to get it just right. For mine, when I can hold the jar up to sunlight and the tea is just barely transparent, that's perfect. (Dear Instructables: If someone wants to build a portable device that will measure the strength of coffee or tea by its optical density, that would make me very geekily happy.)

I usually leave the mint leaves in the jar, so that the tea gets more mint flavor over time. Also, since the tea will be cooling, don't screw the lids on too tight. That makes it harder to get at the tea later.

You can pour the warm tea straight over ice and drink it right away, preferably stretched out somewhere comfortable and shady. Or you can set the jars in the fridge to chill and have a tasty glass ready when it's 80F at 10am the next day.

To wrap the story all the way around, in my four-and-some years in Boston, there was one restaurant where I ordered sweet tea, and the waiter listened very patiently to my explanation of what "sweet tea" was, and then earned a special place in my heart by bringing me out a complete sweet-tea-making set: a teapot with hot water, a bag of black tea, a bowl of sugar, and a tall glass filled with ice.



n00by_117 made it! (author)2016-11-16

this tea turned out truly amazing I brewed up about 3 quarts with this (I used raspberry green tea) and I can't wait to bring it to work tomorrow! thank you

Thejesterqueen (author)2015-11-29

In my family, each woman has a special pot that tea is brewed in. It has to be all metal( no non stick) and it is only used to brew tea. They get rinsed out, but not washed with soap except once in a while. In my house, my tea pot is used to make gallons every day. Not anymore, but when I was little, it was given to babies in their bottles! Glad someone else feels as strongly about it.

iggy112 (author)2011-07-06

Made this for the first time tonight; filled up 3 mason jars with it, but one of them is only half a jarful at this point. :D Thanks for the 'ible!

Wesley666 (author)2011-06-26

In Canada, we just call this iced tea. There is no such thing as iced tea without sugar, it always has sugar. But I always forget when I go to the US for vacation! Cool Ible though! :)

Project D (author)2011-06-04

My girlfriend would love you for this. She's from Florida, and we had the whole discussion about sweet tea vs. sweetened iced tea. On a visit back to FL, she got a sweet tea and handed it to me, saying "Here, *THIS* is sweet tea!" I remember taking a sip, handing it back and saying, "You're right, this isn't sweetened iced tea, this is sugary s%&t in a cup that dentists created to drum up business." I like my sweets, but DAMN this stuff is like sugar water!

GREAT story, though.

hogey74 (author)2011-04-28

We largely missed out of this whole iced tea thing in Australia until recently. Which is kind of surprising because tea is popular and the weather is hot. Now you can buy it in bottles but like iced coffee, I bet you can make your own better than the bottled stuff. I am going to give this a try! Then I am going to sit out on the verandah (porch to you guys), sip iced tea and talk like forrest gump. Lol.

LilithAvalon (author)2011-04-23

As much as I love sweet tea, and thank you for this instructable, I must now label you as one of ~those~ jerks. :p

I worked at a restaurant in Maryland, just south enough that our more southern customers liked sweet tea, just north enough that we didn't have any. I absolutely hated when customers asked for this. IT IS NOT ON THE MENU! "Fresh Brewed Iced Tea." Like exactly every other cr@ppy restaurant, it was brewed just warm enough to become tea. What makes a customer think we have it, or that it's even possible for something that needs to be brewed and sweetened while still boiling, and then cooled? Even our hot tea was served as hot water with a tea bag. Still not as bad as the assumption that we had raspberry ice tea (plus I have the same problem with that as people who get diet coke, thinking it's better for them). At least I understood the difference and instead of "I can bring you sugar with it," I said "we only have unsweetened; the best I can do is..."

Still not gonna stop me from making a whole gallon of this ;) Made a jar of this the other day. Better than the McDonald's stuff, or worse, the Arizona stuff.

reno_dakota (author)LilithAvalon2011-04-27

*laugh* I won't argue; that's totally me. I did try not to do it too much, at least. Just when I was feeling homesick. :)

LilithAvalon (author)reno_dakota2011-04-27

Ah, ok. At least you have the excuse of being several states away, lol.

teh darkcloud (author)2010-05-30

Awesome! I was just thinking to myself "I wonder if there's an Instructable for sweet tea..."

I have a whole box of tea (20 bags?) that I got from the USO for free. It's been pretty warm lately so I didn't want to drink it hot.
I'll definitely try this.

(I'm from San Diego so the only "sweet tea" I've had has been from McDonald's.)

RainbowDust05 (author)2010-04-29

 i always use my pom glass for my iced teas :o)

lil jon168 (author)2009-06-26

my stepmoms tea is da best small boiler 4 lipton tea bags 2 cups of DIXE CRYSTAL sugar put in picher add sugar fill up with FILTERD water

lil jon168 (author)lil jon1682009-06-26

o yea u steep on high till boiling

darkinertia (author)2009-05-10

i found something that you might like

im about to buy one...its just an awesome idea all around! but i dunno if i have much use for them, i have strict rules with tea that i go by

gingerj123 (author)2009-04-30

If you add the sugar to the water before it boils the tea will not be cloudy.

hilary007 (author)2008-08-01

I cheat ''- I put water and heaps of sugar in microwaveable pyrex measuring cup. Microwave - stir - wave until it dissolves. Add to pitcher of tea bags and warm water. (If using a glass pitcher place a metal spoon in first to catch the heat)

Set in sun and when the color is dark enough for you --- add ice. We drink so much in the DEEP SOUTH (Displaced Texan) it makes up quickly!

I love your technique and the love you put into making a truly fine brew.

bigmark (author)hilary0072009-04-22

I wanted to say a big THANK wife's grandma passed away in 07 & I have not had a real glass of sweet tea sence.from what I remember that is the way she made it.but I could not think of how to do it,until now.thank you. and grandma B would be happy 2. lol

reno_dakota (author)hilary0072008-08-04

That works too. :) Thanks! It's been neat to see everyone else's recipes and tips for making sweet tea, too.

egbertfitzwilly (author)2009-04-09

As a die hard fan of sweet tea I want to share the following tip. Anyone who makes iced tea has noticed that it will cloud up. To prevent clouding the Ph balance needs to be adjusted. Lemon's work fine in this role, if one likes lemon in their tea. I do not and after a great deal of experimentation found that small pinch of baking soda added to the tea will significantly reduce clouding. Also allow the tea to cool to room temperature before refigerating (or just add ice as needed).

HA! and they said AP Chemistry was a bad choice...

Then you'll want to investigate the tannins. They are formed in a condensation reaction as the tea cools including fluctuations in ambient temperature. The latter is why all tea eventually clouds up. The change in the ph balance either by adding lemon or a base such as baking soda significantly inhibits their formation. For reasons which are not well understood the formation of insoluble tannins (which account for the cloudiness and explains why it doesn't really affect the flavor) are also affected by the rate of cooling. The slower the cooling, the less cloudy the tea. This may very well account for the traditional crockery dispenser/.

diajoh (author)2008-07-24

There's a Burger King in Saugus, Mass, that has always served sweet tea. For the last 25 years or so, at least. If you like it, fine. I can't handle it. It's like syrup. But I thought if you're in Boston, you might as well know of at least one restaurant that serves it unasked. You can't get normal iced tea there, so it's a shock to non-regulars.

reno_dakota (author)diajoh2008-07-28

Hmm...that's good to know, even if the sweet tea at fast-food-chain places is usually made from scary syrups.

SweeeeeetTea (author)reno_dakota2009-04-08

Never heard of fast food chains using syrup, all the ones around here (NW FL) use one of the large brewers, with either bags or filter and loose tea, then stir in the sugar as soon as it's finished brewing. BTW the Florida panhandle is considered by the rest of the state to actually be an extension of southern Alabama and not really part of Florida.

I dont consider south florida part of the south. Even though it's as far south as you can get in the continental US. case in point. I've been to the real south and I live in miami. Totally different. Its kinda sad

I didn't say anything about south Florida...Not arguing with you there.

zascecs (author)2009-04-08

I like this! Really cool.
I looooove sweet stuff! =D

By the way, check out my recipe too. Please comment on it.

Awsome tea!

Deltablazing (author)2008-08-02

I was just about to make MY version of sweet tea (all the other versions on this site are no cal, no sugar, Thai, and all that junk) , but I guess you beat me to it! This is almost exactly how I make mine, but I just put three or four teabags (Luzianne preferably) in to a container with about four cups of water, slap a small saucer over it, and put it in the microwave for five minutes and let it sit in the microwave for about 15 minutes, then I discard the teabags and pour the tea into a large pitcher and add the sugar, then add a little more water, stir and viola! Sweet tea south-east Arkansas style! I also agree on your Northern restaurant theory. Whenever I order sweet tea, they just look at me like I'm crazy or something.

Kingschild (author)Deltablazing2008-10-14

I'm a south-western Arkansas gal and we make it the same. LOL I used to put 2 cups of sugar to a gallon, but now I've cut it down to 1 1/2 cups. :) My family of 5 goes through a gallon a day, year round.

wenpherd (author)2008-09-29

i like alote i was wandering if you cud make some mesermints on how muck suger to put in it sorry for teh bad spelling

Gordon Freeman (author)2008-07-11

Ice tea anyone I am in Canada and any Tea with ice is sweet.

they even have a powdered instant form

Lynndais (author)Gordon Freeman2008-09-19

I'm from Canada too, but close to the border and our Canadian iced tea is quite different than Southern sweet tea. I'm very careful to never ask for "iced tea" when in the States - always "sweet tea"! Otherwise I get nasty stuff. =) Thanks to reno_dakota for this recipe! Both my BF and I like sweet tea and have been trying to find a good recipe - I'm going to try this one today!

servant74 (author)Gordon Freeman2008-07-18

Even in Texas, that is about what I thought of it. But in the South USA, sweet tea is kind of an artform not designed for diabetics. Kind of a super saturated solution of sugar in a nicely stout tea. ... I like the tea, but do without the sugar.

theophilus (author)2008-09-15

I am the 3rd farthest you can be from the south while still being in the US, but I like sweet things, and I like tea(if that doesn't count I'm sorry). I know i've used buckwheat honey to get a toasted grain/fresh bread flavor; it's really good

darkinertia (author)2008-08-12

hmm, im gonna have to try this some time, but i dont like any pre packaged teabags, cuz its mostly teadust, ill probably ease up on the sugar too cuz i drink tea with very very low amounts of sugar(stevia when i can)

jessyratfink (author)2008-08-07

Oooh, brown sugar? I think I'll have to try that. I tend to be the sort of girl who does the whole "have a little bit of tea with my sugar" thing. I've gotten better, but I occasionally get carried away and put everyone who drinks it into a sugar coma. That's just what I'm used to. Kentucky tends to have REALLY sweet tea. :P

Dungeonbrownies (author)2008-07-10

By jove, that stuff should dissolve your teeth like sulfuric acid hitting a snail shell.

This might possibly be my favorite comment thus far on this project. And, well, at least it's not Coke. ;)

Dee Dee Dee..... have you been to the Deep South? They really need better dental care. Actually as a deterrant to my kids we discuss this phenom at most places that serve carbonated sugar sodas. Sad but effective. LOL While I like sweet tea - I prefer not to drink it for just your reasoning... but sometimes the kids want it and compared to Kool Aide - at least it doesn't have the dyes!! AND we have a wonderful dental plan and visits are sans dental caries. ;-)

fiasco (author)2008-08-01

here's my simple quick recipe if you have very very hot tap water: 8-9 single tea bags(or equivalent if you use larger. 2-cups sugar(any will do, or splenda equivalent to 2 cups regular sugar) 1-gallon pitcher(plastic will work fine) put bags in pitcher, fill 1/2 way with very hot tap water. Let sit for 5-10 mins. Gently squeeze out tea bags and remove. Add Sugar, stir and fill with cold tap water up to gallon mark. tips: like less caffeine? most of the caffeine is release within the first min or so. for less caffeine in your tea dump water out after the first min and then refill with hot tap water again(may have to let sit longer though for the strength to build back up). Even plastic pitcher can be used and left out for some hours before being refrigerated(for up to about a day and a half), so don't let not having a glass pitcher hold you back. last tip, to make the simple syrups you in fact can dissolve 2 CUPS of SUGAR into 1 cup of water in saucepan over heat. put flavors in during the process and strain if needed(this can also be put into plain old carbonated soda water for an old tyme soda fountain-esque drink, about 2 tblsp to a glass or to taste) enjoy!

aliceownsj00 (author)2008-07-10

Oh wow, I bet with brown sugar it's just awesome! Great tutorial! I just moved to Kentucky from Texas and I'm amazed that people here don't know how to make proper sweet tea!!

reno_dakota (author)aliceownsj002008-07-10

Kentucky doesn't know how to make sweet tea? I'm surprised. Well, at least you have Waffle House there...

aliceownsj00 (author)reno_dakota2008-07-10

Well, at least the people I live with don't know how haha, but at least they know what sun tea is haha. I had a very horrible experience at a waffle house as a kid and never plan to go back. *shudders*

reno_dakota (author)aliceownsj002008-07-11

Oh, I'm sad to hear that. But it's true, some Waffle Houses are seriously sketchy.

hilary007 (author)reno_dakota2008-08-01

But they do have Elvis and Barry White on the juke box... my favorite!

guitarman63mm (author)2008-07-12

You know, I was born in Texas, and raised in Florida. I still prefer unsweetened iced tea, contrary to what seems like EVERY other southerner's opinion.

Well, that's because you were raised in Florida, not the south. Florida is about the only place in the world where you've gotta go north to get to the south. ;)

hilary007 (author)BorisTheSpider2008-08-01

I like that - hope to find a situation to use it! Never heard of this before!

That's ok. I grew up in South Carolina & on the Gulf Coast, and still mostly don't like grits. :)

BorisTheSpider (author)2008-07-29

I didn't catch it anywhere. When you make tea, do you follow the instructions on the tea bags for the amount of tea to water, or do you go by something else? I have a tendency to add more tea than I'm "supposed to" but, I like a bit of a stronger flavor to compliment the sweetness. I loathe sweet tea that tastes like sugar water.

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