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There’s the Mason-Dixon line, and there’s the hot-tea-sweet-tea line, which is equally good at demarcating North and South. In the North, ordering tea in a restaurant likely will get you a hot cup, served like coffee. It is sipped. Sweet tea, served cold, is the eau de vie of Dixie restaurants, where it is presented in tall tumblers loaded with ice and frequently accompanied by a pitcherful so diners can help themselves to more. Sweet tea is gulped.
Sweet tea is extremely sweet. In fact, the credo of The Blue Willow Inn of Social Circle, Georgia, is to serve tea “strong and just a little too sweet.” At the Red Shed Diner of Graniteville, South Carolina, tea is served in large Styrofoam cups and it is, as expected, supersweet. Sugar-wary customers who ask for half-and-half (half sweet tea, half unsweet) get cups on which the waitstaff inscribes A.S.S., meaning “Ain’t So Sweet.”
Ever since the Boston Tea Party made tea seem unpatriotic, coffee has been the more American choice. But in the last half century, coffee’s primacy has been challenged thanks in large part to the availability of ready-to-drink tea in bottles and cans. (Snapple began in 1972.) Other tea developments in recent history have been a proliferation of specialty tea houses (parallel to coffee houses), the discovery of matcha tea, which is made from leaf tips of plants that are shade grown to intensify the flavor, bubble tea (aka boba), which includes chewy tapioca balls and comes with or without milk and is sometimes blended into slush, and an increasing taste for non-caffeinated herbal tea.