Text and Photo by Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
What could be more refreshing on a hot summer day than an icy-cold glass of tea? That’s why June was chosen as the official month to celebrate America’s longtime love affair with the beverage. Our country’s passion for cold tea, something our British friends don’t understand, can be traced back nearly two centuries.
One of the most-reported iced-tea stories came from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair when Richard Blechynden, director of the East India pavilion, became frustrated as he tried to offer samples of hot tea under the simmering Missouri sun. In an attempt to boost consumption, he circulated and chilled the tea through a series of lead pipes immersed in ice. The resulting cool, refreshing beverage was a hit with fairgoers, and the iced drink became popular throughout the United States.
This story may be true, but it is not the first recorded incidence of tea being served with ice in the United States. In my native state of Kentucky, cold-tea recipes began appearing prior to the Civil War in cookbooks such as The Kentucky Housewife. Our 1842 home had a stone icehouse, where winter ice, gathered from a nearby river, was stored until the hot days of July and August. The precious ice was shaved and used to make ice cream or put in a glass for iced tea or an occasional mint julep.
Be sure to always call it "iced" tea rather than "ice” tea. Tea with ice in it is an iced beverage. In the South, the word iced is often eliminated, and in many diners and restaurants, it is simply known as “sweet tea.”
Sweet tea dates back to the late 19th century when the following recipe was published in Housekeeping in Old Virginia.
After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.*
Because 19th-century general stores stocked mostly green tea from China or Japan, many early recipes called for green tea. But after World War II, when green tea was scarce, black tea from India became the basis for this popular brew. That is no longer the case.
It may surprise contemporary tea drinkers to learn that most of today’s commercial iced-tea mixes and tea bags contain mostly mechanically harvested black teas from Argentina. More than 40 percent of the tea imported into the United States each year originates in that South American country’s long flat fields of tea bushes.
Although some teas are manufactured specifically to be served as iced tea, almost any tea can be enjoyed cold as well. You can even save your breakfast tea and serve it over ice for lunch. Whether it’s black, green, oolong, or white, drinking iced tea is cooler than ever.
Bruce Richardson’s latest book is The Book of Tea (Benjamin Press 2011). Read his blog at theteamaestro.blogspot.com.
*For more information about green teas and black teas, including correct steeping methods, go tohttp://www.teatimemagazine.com/infusions.aspx.