Summer, 2004 Newsletter - "Tracing the Origin of Iced Tea"
Was It Really Invented at the 1904 World's Fair?
The St. Louis World's Fair, also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, was conceived to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the great land acquisition. As much as anything else, the Missouri planners also wanted to showcase the city's cultural progress, industrial capability, and economic development. When the Fair opened in 1904, more than 3 million events, 1500 buildings, and eight grand palaces amazed visitors from around the world. Representatives from India and Ceylon were on hand with hopes of popularizing their countries' teas.
According to the well-known story, Richard Blechynden, an enterprising English merchant, was put in charge of the tea pavilion. Unfortunately, in planning for the Fair, he never considered the potential impact of weather. When Mother Nature produced a blistering summer day, cups of hot tea were not a popular item with the fairgoers. Exhausted and desperate to showcase his product, Blechynden tried serving the tea cold in glasses filled with ice. The scheme was an instant success, and iced tea was born.
Because of this tale, Richard Blechynden is commonly known as the inventor of iced tea. Yet, it is more accurate to describe him as someone who popularized the drink for, in reality, English and American variants of iced tea had been in existence since the early 1800s.
Known as "tea punches," the first iced teas were actually cocktails of tea and alcohol. For the task, green tea generally was preferred over black tea. In an 1839 cookbook entitled The Kentucky Housewife, author Lettice Bryan suggested combining 1 1/2 pints of strong tea, 2 1/2 cups of white sugar, 1/2 pint of sweet cream, and a bottle of claret (dry red wine) or champagne. The beverage could be served hot or cold (Bryan).
The appearance of iced tea as we know it paralleled the increased availability and popularity of harvested ice from New England lakes and rivers.* Published in 1879, the cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia includes a familiar-sounding recipe for iced tea:
After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of
boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If
wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner
time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer
into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour
into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom
of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two
teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the
tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will
make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct
the astringent tendency (Tyree).
The most compelling evidence of all for iced tea's pre-1904 existence comes from the September 28, 1890 edition of the Nevada Noticer. In it, a brief article inventoried meal requirements for the 1890 Missouri State Reunion of Ex-Confederate Veterans. Included on the menu were 880 gallons of iced tea! (Stradley). Without a doubt then, America's brew was around long before Blechynden entered the picture.
Today, as St. Louis celebrates the World Fair's centennial, iced tea is the most common form of the beverage in the United States; over 80% of all tea consumed here is iced tea. While instant, bottled, and bagged teas account for a significant portion of this volume, iced loose leaf tea is a true epicurean delight.
The thought of making loose leaf iced tea can be intimidating at first, but it is actually quite simple. Our favorite technique is the "cold brew" method because it produces the best taste and requires only a few simple steps. Start by doubling or tripling the amount of dry leaf used for preparation of hot tea. For most varieties, this equates to 5-6 grams (2-3 teaspoons) per six ounces of water. Combine cold water and the leaves in a large container and refrigerate overnight. Remove the leaves from the infusion and serve over ice. Sweeten and garnish with lemon or mint as desired.
This cold brewing also eliminates one of the most common complaints about loose leaf iced tea. The infusion doesn't get cloudy after refrigeration a common problem for hot-brewed teas. Scientific attempts to explain the clouding phenomenon suggest numerous causes. They include cooling the infusion too quickly after hot brewing, choosing teas like Assams and high-grown Ceylons, using water with a high mineral content, and brewing the tea for longer than three minutes (Ukers).
Recently, we conducted a few informal experiments of our own with the hopes of understanding more about cloudy tea. When brewed hot and then refrigerated, the Assams clouded the most; a high-grown BOP Ceylon and a Darjeeling turned slightly cloudy; and a China black and China green didn't cloud at all. For those teas that did cloud, allowing the liquor to reach room temperature before refrigerating seemed to improve clarity just a bit. Should you ever find yourself faced with a pitcher of cloudy tea, there is a simple solution. Slowly add boiling water until the infusion begins to clear.
Whether you opt to hot-brew or chill it overnight in the refrigerator, loose leaf iced tea is an easy way to enjoy your favorite beverage when the mercury starts to rise. Enjoy!
Footnotes *Refer to Gavin Weightman's The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story (New York: Hyperion, 2003) for a fascinating account of the early years of the New England ice industry.
Bryan, Lettice. The Kentucky Housewife. Cincinnatti, OH: Shepard & Stearns, 1839. Reprinted Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Missouri Historical Society
Stradley, Linda. "History of Iced Tea and Sweet Tea."
Tyree, Marion Cabell, Ed. Housekeeping in Old Virginia. Containing contributions from two hundred and fifty ladies in Virginia and her sister states. Louisville, KY: J.P. Morton & Co., 1879.
Ukers, William F. All About Tea, Volume II. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1935.
"Upton Tea Imports was founded in 1989 with the objective of providing the North American tea drinker with
the finest teas available. We purchase teas from reputable brokers and estates worldwide, dealing only with
sources who are capable of providing top quality teas. We sell directly to the consumer, thus ensuring the
freshest product and fairest pricing."