The Story of Iced Tea

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Although iced or chilled tea has been consumed to quench one’s thirst on a hot summer day in one way or another throughout history, the iced tea as we know it today is very much an American style of drinking tea. Americans drink significantly more iced tea than its hot counterpart. The Tea Council of America estimates that out of 50 billion cups of tea consumed every year, 40 billion are iced. So how did iced tea become so popular?

American businessman Richard Blechynden is said to have been the spiritual father of iced tea, serving it at the 1904 World’s fair in St. Louis and thereby popularizing the beverage on a global scale. However, there have been reports of iced tea recipes originating out of the East coast of America, particularly the Carolinas, that date back as far as the seventeenth century. In the historical text ‘Housekeeping in Old Virginia,’ published in 1879, an iced tea recipe by Marion Cabell Tyree is printed that calls for green tea to be steeped all day before being poured into an ice-filled cup and added sugar. “Sweet tea” as the sweetened variant is called has long been seen as a quintessentially Southern drink and symbolic for Southern Hospitality. Even so, there are numerous similar recipes originating out of other parts of the United States and Canada around the same time as well.

Initially most iced teas were made from green tea, and could pack a hefty alcoholic punch, and this is exactly what they were called: “punches”. As inexpensive black teas were imported in high quantities by the early 1800s black teas also began to be used for iced tea. By the mid-19th century the development of refrigeration techniques had caught up to the point where commercial production of ice became available and the “icebox” became a staple in most homes, making it much easier to prepare a batch of tea punch. Another technological discovery that had an impact was the advent of carbonated water, or soda. The rise of soft drinks introduced a whole field of flavors to be explored.

Although still slightly behind major players like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Mountain Doo, iced tea is a multi-billion dollar industry with brands like Snapple, Lipton, Arizona, and Pure Leaf reaching markets all over the world. As health has become an increasingly important element in our nutrition, and most mass-produced iced teas are sweetened with copious amounts of sugar or syrup, non-sweetened alternatives are also rising in popularity, and we might see a return to making home-brewed iced tea.

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