by William I. Lengeman III
In the opinion of novelist Henry Fielding, “love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.” But for so many of Fielding’s countrymen, black tea with milk and sugar is a right and a requirement that’s become one of the icons with which the British are closely associated.
For many other tea drinkers, however, anything other than love and scandal in their tea is nothing short of an abomination. The ancient Chinese tea master Lu Yu called flavored tea “the swill of gutters and ditches.” Another British writer, George Orwell, acknowledged that he was in the minority when he said, “how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”
It’s beyond the scope of such a short article to determine when sugar was first used to sweeten tea. But the practice became common in Great Britain in the eighteenth century thanks to a boom in sugar production in Caribbean colonies that resulted in significantly lower prices. Sweetened tea became so common in this part of the world that one commentator noted, “wherever the English went, whether aristocrat or commoner, tea and sugar went with them.”
In many other parts of the world, tea is rarely sweetened. The thick, strong black tea that’s a staple in Tibet is almost always made with butter and salt, but is not generally sweetened.
Written recipes for iced sweet tea, an institution in the southern United States, have been found dating back as far as 1839. Even George Orwell allowed that tea could be sweetened with sugar, if “one is drinking it in the Russian style.” Strong black Russian tea is often dispensed from a samovar and may be sweetened with jam or a sugar cube clenched between the teeth. Russian writer Alexander Pushkin said, “ecstasy is a glass full of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth.”
Black tea is most often sweetened, but there are a few exceptions. In Morocco and other northern African countries, green tea is served with mint and a healthy dose of sugar is also common.
Whether or not to sweeten your tea is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but if you’re drinking a premium tea you might want to sample it before reaching for sugar. High-end teas are often flavorful enough without anything added and sweetening tends to overpower the subtleties of a fine tea.
Please check out William’s blog, Tea Guy Speaks, for more awesome writing!