Who knew that a receipt from 1890 would provide the proper documentation that allowed Summerville to lay claim to the title of “Birthplace of Sweet Tea”?

After applying for the trademark almost two years ago, the town was cleared to brand itself as such just a few months ago. It must be the truth: There are no challenges brewing.

Summerville’s place in tea history always has been on pretty firm ground. The first plants were brought to America in the late 1700s and put in the soil near what is now Middleton Plantation.

Eventually, sprigs of those same tea leaves were transferred to Wadmalaw Island, where tea is still grown and cultivated today at the Charleston Tea Plantation. But how do we know people here were drinking sweet, iced tea before anyone else? The answer’s coming ...

A Southern thang

A glass of cold, sweet tea is as much a part of a Southern dinner table as fried chicken and collards. And sweet tea here is not just consumed in the summer or at Fourth of July picnics. We drink it here all year long.

Just making tea is an exercise in point-counterpoint. We boil the water, then add ice. Once the sugar is added, the first thing someone might request is a slice of lemon. So we first want it hot, then cold, then sweet, then sour.

It’s just as acceptable to serve it in a crystal glass as a red Solo cup.

Some sweet tea recipes have been found in Southern cookbooks dating back to 1830. I actually heard a Southern lady say recently when asked what was needed first to boil the tea, “Grab a pot about ‘yea’ big.” That tells you right there all you need to know.

A pitcher of the sweet elixir is a fixture in some refrigerators in the South. It’s just always there and somehow the pitcher always has some in it.

A few years ago, companies tried to sell us on instant tea. If you can’t tell the difference between something that’s been brewed and simmered and sweetened and then served over ice cubes in a tall glass from something that’s been scooped, stirred and sloshed, then bless your heart, as they say.

Reading the tea leaves

Credit the folks in Summerville for seeing a marketing moment and seizing it. First, it was the town’s Azalea Magazine that first “tea”sed the community with the idea of it being the birthplace.

Then, the Chamber of Commerce embraced the identity. And, now there are giant billboards both on I-26 and I-95 inviting people to explore the Sweet Tea Trail.

For some years, the Southern beverage was thought to have happened onto the scene in St. Louis at The World’s Fair in 1904.

But those ideas changed with the discovery of a long list of items purchased for a reunion of old soldiers near Summerville in 1890.

Among the provisions of bread, beans, and beef were these specific commodities: 600 pounds of sugar and 880 gallons of iced tea. These folks were already enjoying the Southern beverage of choice a full 14 years before anybody at the World’s Fair had even considered dropping some ice into a glass of tea.

So there you go, the folks in Summerville are rightfully proud to boast of more than just their flowers and their football.

And thanks to some heads-up marketing ideas, they now have the tea shirts to prove it.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com.