Summer time here at Steep Mountain Tea House is iced tea time! We make hundreds of iced teas a week. They are such a popular item we thought it would be fun to offer a loose leaf tea sampler of our favorite teas to brew cold so you can purchase online for yourself or send as a gift (click on the image below to view our shopping page). And while you are here on this blog, take a moment to read a brief history of iced tea written by Scott, our leaf manager. Happy Summer!
For many thousands of years humans have been consuming tea leaves for their health and invigorating properties. However, the process of straining tea over ice seems to be a relatively recent development in the history of the beverage. In Yunnan province in China, which along with the surrounding area, is considered to be the first place in the world where Camellia sinensis (true tea) was first cultivated by people, the thought of adding ice to tea made very little sense. Traditional Chinese medicine does not advise consuming liquids colder than room temperature on a regular basis, and in Yunnan the official soups and stews (preferred food of the region) are eaten piping hot even in the depths of summer. These days, anyone can find bottles of ready-to-drink teas available in refrigerators as well as boba (iced bubble tea with jellies in the bottom of the drink) all over Asia including Yunnan province. Now, let’s take a look at the history and how we got iced tea in the first place.
The legend is that at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 the commissioner of Indian tea, Richard Blechynden, had poured his samples of hot tea over ice as an act of desperation to attract customers’ attention in the sweltering heat. The 20 million visitors to the fair loved this refreshing beverage and took it back home with them, enshrining iced tea as a staple in many corners of the United States and beyond. However, it seems to have been lurking just outside of public awareness in the United States and England for about a century beforehand.
After the Boston Tea Party (which solidified tea as the primary symbol of British colonial power over the soon-to-be nation of the United States of America), many of the colonists turned to steeping dried local herbs and fruits as either hot or cold tisanes (herbal teas), known colloquially as “Freedom Teas.” In the early 1800’s, we have the first recipes for tea punches in which tea was brewed strong, then had citrus juice and liberal amounts of alcohol such as brandy, rum, red wine and champagne added to it to make a potent cocktail. These punches were occasionally served hot, but more often at room temperature and even iced if possible. While tea was generally an integral part of the recipe for these drinks, it still took a back seat to the liquor and was considered an ingredient rather than a stand-alone cold beverage.
A major factor in the development of iced tea was the availability of ice during the summer months. In the United States, ice could be gathered from ponds and lakes of New England during the winter months, then insulated and stored for use in the summer. However, in the southern states the advent of the in-home ice chest provided the ability to keep the imported ice year-round, and the convenience of this invention began to spread the consumption of iced tea in both the North and South. Beginning in 1868 iced tea had taken hold in American households. Southern sweet tea had its first official recipe published in 1878, just over 100 years after the Boston Tea Party demonized the leaf.
The 1920’s and -30’s saw additional growth for the iced tea industry in America as Prohibition on alcoholic beverages drove the tea-punch culture underground, but many saloons and hotels pivoted to serving strong iced tea as a stimulating legal alternative to cocktails. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 the punches were back on the menu, but iced tea had established itself in its own right.
Boba tea was invented in the 1980’s in Taiwan by adding tapioca balls to iced tea. Typically it is served sweetened and either with or without milk. Its popularity has since exploded and spread across the world, making iced tea on a global scale a much more common phenomenon.
Nowadays most anyone in a decent-sized city can easily have good options for finding a refreshing, invigorating iced tea beverage with whether it be sweet, milky, made with jellies, or even a splash of liquor. This is just the most recent chapter in our species’ creative relationship with the life-enhancing leaf known as tea!