If you are a tea drinker, beware — asking if iced tea and sweet tea are the same is a regionally controversial question that unfortunately does not have a resolution in sight anytime soon. Unfortunately for global tea drinkers, the distinction between the two drinks is convoluted, given the historical variance of the recipes and the multitude of customizations available across tea shops and geographies.
Iced tea and sweet tea are two different drinks. Iced tea is plain brewed tea that is chilled and served over ice. Sweet tea is sweetened brewed tea that is served hot or cold. However, iced tea and sweet tea are often used interchangeably to describe black tea that is both sweetened and iced.
If you have ever been shocked to taste a syrupy sweetness after ordering iced tea from McDonald’s, or if you were the person who held up the line at Starbucks asking the cashier about all their flavored and unflavored variations of sweet tea, read on. For your sake, and for those in line behind you, this article will tell you what you need to know, to assist you in ordering the tea you wanted in the first place. When you are finished reading, you’ll be able to order your tea like a pro and avoid glares from a disgruntled line of regulars.
What Is the Difference Between Iced Tea and Sweet Tea?
Let’s start with the broad distinctions and work our way towards the finer details between iced tea and sweet tea to give you a better idea of what to expect next time you place an order.
Traditionally, iced tea is made from black tea that is brewed, chilled, and served plain over ice. While green tea leaves were primarily used in early American recipes, the use of black tea leaves became popular in the 1900s because it was a less expensive import.
Iced tea’s big break as a commercial drink occurred at an exposition fair in the summer of 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri, after a vendor decided to strain his unsold hot tea over ice (source).
Historically, sweet tea is made from black tea that is brewed, sweetened with sugar, chilled, and served over ice. Like iced tea, sweet tea’s earliest recipes called for the use of green tea leaves, and later switched to black tea leaves.
Recipes for both teas can be found as early as the colonial era in America.
Interestingly enough, the original recipes for both drinks used green tea and mixed it with liquor. These beverages were more commonly described as tea punches, rather than iced or sweet tea (source1, source2).
Why Are Iced Tea and Sweet Tea Popular Drinks?
Before iced tea and sweet tea were regional controversies, they were political issues.
Prohibition was arguably the most impactful catalyst that supported iced tea’s commercial demand after its introduction to the market in the summer of 1904.
While Prohibition was rooted in a religious effort to eradicate America of immoral beverages, the ban of alcohol was actively supported by tea salesmen and soda manufacturers racing to grow business. Additionally, mass refrigeration was still in its early stages during this time (source1, source2).
Ice and sugar — two necessary ingredients to make iced and sweet tea — were generally only accessible to affluent members of society, and to industry investors with capital to purchase large quantities.
Aside from creating a social divide among religious groups, the ban on alcohol created a socioeconomic division between America’s affluent and working classes. The public started associating involvement with alcohol to criminals and the lower classes, while temperance became a moral and social status symbol for the upper classes.
High society cookbooks illustrated iced and sweetened teas as classy, refined beverages suitable for both casual and special occasions (source). Combine the financial flex of ice and sugar with the trend of temperance and you’ve got an en vogue drink that everyone wanted to try.
Why Do We Mistake Iced Tea for Sweet Tea?
Prohibition did more than just popularize iced and sweet teas; it also muddled the identities of the two. We saw iced sweet tea recipes appear in cookbooks regularly around this time, as Prohibition forced the public to seek alternative drinks to:
- Cool them down,
- Satisfy thirst, and
- Use as a social lubricant for events (source).
We also saw iced tea recipes emulate the public’s lingering desire for mixed drinks through mocktails. Where previous cocktail recipes used spirits, people began to substitute liquor with:
- Herbs and
- Spices (source).
As the market price of sugar dropped, and refrigeration became mainstream among American households, iced and sweet teas became less of a status drink and more of a household comfort (source). The average person could make ice at home, and thus started icing their own teas.
Teas were iced and sweetened according to the preference of their maker, and eventually those preferences became household recipes.
When Iced Tea and Sweet Tea are the Same
Sweet iced tea, in particular, became a staple in the American South, from which a good deal of the iced vs. sweet tea confusion and controversy resides. In the South, people expect that iced tea is to be sweet by default, and for sweet tea to be iced. The only difference people expected between the two was for sweet tea to be sweeter than iced tea (source).
We learned a lot from an April Fool’s bill created by a Georgian state representative in 2003.
To his dismay, sweet tea was not a menu item when he visited a restaurant in Chicago. And to further his disappointment, when he ordered iced tea, it was served to him unsweetened (source). Hence, he made a three-part bill that suggests:
“(a) . . . [T]he term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment which serves iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea (source).”
The bill is a humorous attempt to settle the tiresome debate between the two teas. All the while, it also provides a subtle stubbornness about how, perhaps the state of Georgia, feels about the differences between iced tea and sweet tea.
The last part of his bill joking states:
“(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature (source).”
How to Order Iced or Sweet Tea
Are you thirsty yet?
It’s no wonder ordering iced, or sweet tea causes long lines at the coffee shop. Considering the variance in each shop’s recipes and customization options, it would seem novice and expert tea drinkers alike have no choice but to interrogate the cashier about the shop’s recipe before ordering.
Fortunately, you are now empowered with the knowledge of iced and sweet tea’s convoluted origins — you saw where the recipes diverged, as well as where they muddled.
At the tea shop, you’ll really only have to anticipate if there’s going to be sweetness if you order iced tea. The simple solution is to ask if your drink will be sweetened or unsweetened before placing your order.
How to Make Iced Tea or Sweet Tea at Home
Do you suffer from analysis paralysis and still can’t decide how you want to order your tea at the restaurant? We suggest that you first make the tea at home to find out what you like. That way you can specify what you want right away next time you’re out and about.
Modern iced tea recipes use a variety of leaf bases, flavors, textures, and sweetener. If you’re a purist, brew any base, chill it, pour it over ice, and enjoy. If you want more options, follow our guide below:
Pick a tea leaf base
Boil some water and brew the tea for 3 – 5 minutes. You can even mix them together!
Pick one or more sweeteners
We recommend adding the sweetener while the tea is still warm, so it dissolves easily.
- Simple syrup
- A sugar substitutes like aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose
- A plant-based syrup like maple, or agave
- Artificially flavored fruit and herb syrups
- Sweetened condensed milk
Pick one or more flavor and/or texture additions.
Stir to combine.
- Sweetened condensed milk
- Tapioca pearls
Add ice to your tea, drink up, and cool down!
Putting the Final Touches on the Iced Tea
Now that you know the history, and how to make the perfect glass of iced tea, sweetened or otherwise, all you need to do is add a sprig of mint to the glass as a garnish and you’re ready to serve guests.
Just remember, for the rest of your tea-drinking life, the answer to the difference between iced and sweet tea will entirely depend on who you ask, and where you are.