Sweet tea should not be confused with “sweetened tea.” Sweetened tea is perfunctory. It’s passive in both grammar and intention. The tea is brewed to the appropriate strength, then it’s left to the drinker to actually do the work: to decide what kind of sugar to use, to determine how much of it to stir in, and then to search for lemon wedges to squeeze into the glass. It’s often served at restaurants, and you’re relegated to stirring granulated sugar into ice-cold tea. Even when vigorously whisked, the sugar crystals settle at the bottom.
Sweet tea, however, is direct and active — a teamaker’s humble offering to those who are blessed to have it poured into their glasses. Preparing sweet tea is an act of service, much like a beloved parent’s serving a child cut fruit or buttered toast. It embodies the Southern hospitality of the homes and kitchens it’s brewed in.
Sweet tea is not just “tea with sugar” — it’s a beverage in its own right. An inviting elixir, sweet tea has its sugar added early on: the sugar crystals dissolve fully when stirred into piping hot tea. And by brewing the tea extra strong, you can push the limits of just how much sugar you use.
Though iced tea first became popular in the North, it appears that it was Southerners who innovated on it by presweetening the tea in brewed batches.
I grew up in Louisiana drinking the best tea recipe I know — one from my grandmother, Leona Marcena Clay Johnson, a woman born and raised in Indiana. This sweet tea recipe is adapted from hers, which she brewed daily. Hers is the only sweet tea I’ve known to use such copious amounts of lemon juice and sugar, and the flavor is intense yet delicate.
I simply use a saucepan and my phone as a timer to ensure that the tea is brewed to the appropriate strength. If you can, splurge on the good granulated sugar — the pure cane kind.
Next time you are celebrating with your family, try replacing the bottle of wine on the dining table with a pitcher of tea, something just about everyone can enjoy.
Recipe from Leona Marcena Clay Johnson Adapted by Vallery Lomas
• 8 black tea bags, preferably Lipton
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus more to taste
• 6 tablespoons lemon juice
• Ice cubes, for chilling and serving
• Lemon slices, for garnish (optional)
In a tea kettle or medium saucepan, heat four cups water until boiling. Remove from the heat and add the tea bags. Allow the tea to steep for 5 minutes. Gently squeeze the bags to release their concentrated tea, then discard the bags. Transfer the tea to a pitcher.
Stir 1/2 cup sugar into the hot tea until it has dissolved. Stir in the lemon juice. Add 4 cups water, then fill the pitcher with 2 cups ice.
Taste the tea to determine if you’d like to add up to 4 tablespoons more sugar. If adding sugar, stir until it dissolves.
Cover and refrigerate until the sweet tea is chilled throughout or up to two days. Serve in a glass filled with ice, and garnish with a lemon slice if you’d like.
Total time: 15 minutes, plus cooling; makes 8 cups.