The City Magazine Since 1975

Odes To The Lowcountry - Sweet Tea

Sweet Tea (oil on panel, 10 x 8 inches, 2012) by Shannon Runquist, courtesy of a private collection,

Written by Renae Brabham

The congenial power of the South’s favorite cool, sugary drink

Sweet tea—I love everything about it, except the taste. What? you ask. A Southerner who doesn’t like sweet tea? Surely, you jest. Nope, that’s the God’s-honest truth, but I do truly appreciate what the drink represents in my beloved South: hospitality.

Southern coasters have never propped a prettier beverage—the rich, translucent, sugary amber in clear glasses adorned with a fat lemon wedge. I love the Southern charm of sweet tea, the generosity it conveys, the tinkle of ice cubes in the glass. You’d be hard-pressed to find a picnic table, reunion, or wedding below the Mason-Dixon Line without a pitcher of the elixir. Next to Bourbon, it may be the most congenial liquid found.

For me, sweet tea evokes memories of lightning bugs, front porches, long summers, and both gracious and grateful family. I liken an offering of sweet tea to getting a big-chested hug from my favorite aunt, Weezie.

When I was growing up in Dorchester County, sweet tea was a reward—a silent thank-you for a job well done after my brother, sister, and I raked the yard or tended the garden. It was a celebratory beverage as well. If visitors dropped by, Mom would tell us quietly, “Make sure the company glasses are clean before you fill them with ice and tea.” We drank our tea out of plastic, everyday glasses, while workers helping with the butchering, land-clearing, tree-trimming, or ditch-digging were handed old jelly or Mason jars. 

The most refreshing beverage to ever coat my throat was ice-cold sweet tea served to a gaggle of cousins in brightly colored aluminum cups oozing chilly condensation. Yes, I liked sweet tea back then. So what happened? The desire for allowance, which equals chores—doing the dishes, folding the clothes, cutting the grass, and yes, making the sweet tea. That darn pitcher was forever empty. 

To this day, I could make sweet tea in my sleep. Fill the dark-bottomed teapot with water, about a quart. Throw in three family-size bags of Lipton and bring to a boil. Take off the burner and fish out the bags with a flat, slotted spoon. Pour the hot tea over two cups of Dixie Crystals sugar in a gallon pitcher. Stir until dissolved. Add cold water to fill and place in the refrigerator. Two hours later, rinse and repeat. 

My withdrawal from tea may have started with the exclusion of pouring my own glass so that I wouldn’t need to make it as often. On hotter-than-Hannah days, it was nothing to make three gallons by evening. My dad’s tea jug alone quite possibly could have been the first Big Gulp.  

And then, one summer day, I decided I hated the stuff—just like that, it was over. It may have been the aroma that wafted up as I stirred the umpteenth pitcher that week. (I feel the need to hand over my Southerner ID card for expressing that.) Anyway, that was 40 years ago, and I haven’t drunk a glass of sweet tea since. 

Unfortunately for my family and my sweet tea aficionado husband, I quit making it as well. Before you get to feeling sorry for them, let me assure you that there is no shortage of the stuff in Charleston County. 

ost every establishment serves sweet tea, and my hubby, Don, always orders it. “How’s the tea?” I’ll ask him while sipping my water with lemon. He swishes the drink around in his mouth like a critic and then proclaims its worthiness: too sweet, not sweet enough, weak, two thumbs up, sour, or just made.

Every now and then—like once every five years—I’ll make a batch to prove I’ve still got it. Don is ecstatic when he opens the fridge to see a pitcher of tea sitting there. He loves my tea but will tell you that his mama made the best. Now, who wants to compete with that?!

Whether I ever drink another glass or not, I consider sweet tea a constant in the South—the sugary glue that binds us together on porches, gliders, gardens, and fields. And, who knows, there may be hope for me yet. I recently acquired a taste for Firefly Sweet Tea vodka.