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The Sweet History of Iced Tea

While tea has an impressive history stretching back 5,000 years, iced tea has a history stretching back only as far as the discovery of preserving ice. After all, what good was iced tea in the winter time?

Iced Tea Punches

While popular lore has iced tea being discovered by accident in the early twentieth century, there are documents dating the use of iced tea in the seventeenth century. In 1795, South Carolina was the only colony in America producing tea plants. It was also the only colony (later state) to produce the plant commercially. The plant arrived in the late 1700s thanks to French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux. Michaux brought many showy plants to South Carolina during this time to satisfy the tastes of wealthy Charleston planters.

Once the plant arrived, accounts of iced versions of tea began to appear almost immediately in cookbooks of the day. Both English and American cookbooks show tea being iced to use in cold green tea punches. Heavily spiked with alcohol, these punches were popular and made with green tea, not black as iced tea is made today. One popular version was called Regent's Punch, named after George IV, the English prince regent in the early nineteenth century.

Traditional Iced Tea

The first version of iced tea as we know it today, albeit made with green tea leaves, was printed in 1879. Housekeeping in Old Virginia published a recipe by Marion Cabell Tyree calling for green tea to be boiled then steeped throughout the day. Finally, "fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar." Ms. Tyree also called for lemon in her drink.

In 1884, the head of the Boston Cooking School, Mrs. D. A. (Mary) Lincoln, printed her recipe for presweetened iced tea calling for cold tea to be poured over cracked ice, lemon and two sugar cubes. Mrs. Lincoln's recipe called for the black tea used today in iced tea as well as sugar proving sweet tea is not just a southern tradition.

Iced Tea Becomes Commercialized

Many other accounts of iced tea exist prior to 1904 when many historians mistakenly believe iced tea was invented. While it has been shown that the beverage had existed for a century prior to the World's Fair in St. Louis, Richard Blechynden is said to have realized that an iced version of his free hot tea would be more appealing on a summer day. It was, and with so many fair goers from around the country looking for cold drinks, the popularity of iced tea skyrocketed and the beverage became immediately well-known and eventually common throughout all of North America.

Iced Tea Today

Today, iced tea comes in many variations. It is served sweetened, primarily in the southern states, and served black in most others. In many area of the United States you'll get iced tea when you ask for "tea" any month of the year. Iced tea is now sold in bottles and is one of the most popular beverages in the world. It can be found in some variation on every continent. From spiked punch to healthy drink alternative, iced tea has traveled a great distance in its relatively short history.