By Bruce Richardson • Photography by Sarah Arrington
I grew up on a Kentucky farm where sweet iced tea was the summer drink of choice. The recipe simply called for 2 cups of sugar to be stirred into a gallon of warm Luzianne or Lipton tea. After the tea approached room temperature, a couple of trays of ice were added, causing beads of condensation to run down the sides of the glass jar that originally had held my mother’s dill pickles. The jar was wrapped in newspapers and placed in a milk pail, where it stayed cold for the remainder of the day. I love the memory of that syrupy sweet iced tea, but I can no longer drink it when I attend a family reunion. My siblings say I got “citified,” but I attribute my preference toward unsweetened tea to an appreciation for the taste of quality tea—and an awareness of healthy beverages.
Western tea drinkers have sweetened their tea since the mid-1600s. Sugar consumption in England kept pace with tea sales throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the key question when considering the need to add sugar to tea is, what do you want to taste first—the sweetener or the tea?
Many specialty teas are considered self-drinking teas. That means they are best enjoyed without any additions. You want to savor the nuanced taste of the tea completely without adulteration such as sugar or milk.
Then there are the countless flavored teas whose notes can be enhanced by the addition of a light sweetener. Black teas blended with flavors such as apricot, mango, peach, or cinnamon sometimes taste better with a bit of sugar to bring those highlights forward. Since it is possible to unintentionally mask the unique flavors of the blend, start with a small amount of sweetener, and then add more if desired.
Tea drinkers have never had more choices when it comes to sweetening agents. Here are a few of my suggestions for making your tea experience all the sweeter:
Sugar cubes. I always recommend raw or white sugar cubes for a formal tea table. They create less spillage than does granulated sugar, and the sight of sugar cubes implies an extra bit of thoughtfulness by the host.
Honey. A light honey makes a great sweetener for herbals or green teas. My favorite is star-thistle honey. It has a neutral flavor that won’t interfere with the delicate taste of these teas.
Simple syrup. Homemade simple syrup is easy to make, and it combines well with iced teas. You can make it quickly in a saucepan by adding a cup of sugar to a cup of heated water. Stir until the sugar dissolves, and add a few drops of lemon juice to prevent crystallization. Store the syrup for up to a month in the refrigerator.
Agave. This high-fructose sweetener is one and one-half times sweeter than sugar, and it dissolves easily in both hot and cold teas. Lighter agave syrups are more neutral when added to tea than is amber-colored agave, which can have a caramel taste.
Stevia. Tea drinkers who want sweetness but no calories often use this plant-based sweetener. It is 10 times sweeter than sugar, so a small amount goes a long way in sweetening your cup of tea. You might notice an aftertaste similar to that of licorice.
Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and Benjamin Press. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.