Who really makes the perfect sweet tea? We tasted gallons of the stuff to find out
No matter the time of year, you’ll find just about every Southerner sipping on sweet tea. In most homes, the refreshing beverage is made by the gallon with plenty of sugar and served over ice. And while we’re partial to the homemade version, let’s be real. When the craving hits, we don’t want to wait for tea to cool. So we turn to grocery stores or fast food chains for convenience.
But when it comes to premade, does one brand out-brew another? Would a fast food chain have the best sweet tea? Or do specialty tea brands simply taste better? To find the answer, we buckled down for a sugary taste test. It turns out that there are good premade options, but some brands ultimately taste more like sugar water than anything else.
Our testing process and criteria
To narrow down our tasting pool, we chose to stick with brands that could be found in the South, along with a few fast food chains that are known for their sweet tea, and landed on a total of seven. We wanted to see how these teas stood up to our vision — one that is sweet as can be, but still have a noticeable tea flavor and a refreshing finish. We can’t imagine sweet tea being served without ice, but for taste test purposes we decided to serve our teas chilled, but undiluted, eliminating the possibility that melted ice would change the flavors of the tea. We tried all seven brands in one afternoon — we’re still not sure how we managed to do that without immediately going into a sugar coma — and had eight judges give us their feedback on each of them.
Our judges were asked to rate each sweet tea on a scale of 1 to 5 on sweetness (1 being too sweet, 5 being ideal sweet tea perfection), clarity and color, and overall flavor. We tallied up the results from our eight judges and the highest possible score a sweet tea could receive was 120.
Below are the results, ranked from least enjoyable to our favorite.
If you want to get jazzed up on sugar like a hummingbird, head to McDonalds. While their sweet tea might be a popular menu item, our judges thought this “sweet tea” — if you can even call it that — had just way too much sugar in it. One judge said it “tastes like candy.” Another judge was more vocal and said, “holy s*** that ... the diabeetus is real!” It was clear that McDonald’s sweet tea lacked any other flavor than sugar. “Way too sweet, lord,” another taster said. Yes, this drink is supposed to have some sugar in it, but you’re also supposed to taste the tea. We just couldn’t find that flavor anywhere in the drink. “Whoowee! So sweet not enough tea,” one taster said.
12 Color and clarity: 31 Flavor: 14 Total: 57
Sweet Leaf Iced Teas has been around for over two decades. The iced tea brand was created in Texas and over the years it has expanded its product line to include sweet tea, green teas, fruit teas and lemonades. We tasted the original sweet tea, a recipe that comes from founder Clayton Christopher’s grandmother Mimi. One thing our tasters agreed on was the odd color of the tea. One taster said it’s “cloudy like [sewer] water.” Another said, “The color is scary, like when you can’t see the bottom of the lake.” Color aside, the flavor was average. “I like this one,” one taster said. “[It has] a good level of sweetness and maybe some citrus, which I like.” While this definitely wasn’t Snapple or NESTEA, some of our judges mistaked it for those national brands. The sweetness level was appealing, but wasn’t really anything special. “Right amount of sweetness for me,” a taster commented.
19 Color and clarity: 22 Flavor: 22 Total: 63
Originating in Florida, Publix is a Southern grocery chain that is home to everyone’s favorite “Pub Sub,” and it turns out their sweet tea is not too bad either. The one main issue we found with the tea was its freshness. Some tasters they found the flavor to be “funky,” and others found the sweetness a little too overpowering. “It’s less refreshing than sweet tea A [Sweet Leaf] because it’s a little sugar-water like,” one taster said. Another taster said, “It had a good level of sweetness, but slightly bitter too.” The next time we buy this tea we’ll check the packaging and expiration date to make sure we buy it at peak freshness.
20 Color and clarity: 24 Flavor: 19 Total: 63
Chick-fil-A has blessed us with the chicken sandwich, chick ’n minis and the wonderous Icedream cone. Another Southern classic they’ve almost perfected is sweet tea. One of the best parts of eating at Chick-fil-A is the customer service, so it’s no surprise they carry this through every aspect of the business. I point this out because I was easily able to pick up a gallon of sweet tea in the drive thru lane. It might seem silly to mention, but if you’re on the run and need to pick up last minute drinks for a party, you can count on them to get you what you need.
As soon as we tasted this sweet tea, we could feel the sugar flowing through our veins. Some tasters thought the sweetness took over the flavor. One judge said there’s “not much going on beyond sweetness.” While another commented it was “way too sweet. I feel like I can taste the sugar in my teeth.” One judge went as far as comparing it to something Willy Wonka would create. While this tea did have the highest sweetness average, it was it well balanced by its tea flavor. “The flavor is good, but too sweet,” one taster said. “Lawd have mercy it’s sweet.” We agreed that this sweet tea would be better served over ice with a lemon slice on top.
19 Color and clarity: 31 Flavor: 23 Total: 73
When we tallied up the points, we were surprised Zaxby’s scored higher than Chick-fil-A and Publix. From previous experience our judges, anecdotally, thought that those other brands tasted better than Zaxby’s; however, that just wasn’t the case in our taste test. Some found it had an odd bitter aftertaste, saying that the flavor was just gross. Others found some hints of cinnamon. These inconsistencies could possibly come down to the fact that it might be old tea. (We didn’t ask when it was brewed when we got it from the restaurant.) Some tasters thought the tea was “a little too sweet, but would be nice with lemonade.” So, if you want to make an Arnold Palmer this might be a good choice. One taster thought this sweet tea was perfect. “It looks good and is very refreshing,” they said. “It’s dabomb.com.”
26 Color and clarity: 32 Flavor: 23 Total: 81
We’ve included Bojangle’s in our fast food fried chicken and biscuit taste test, so it was only appropriate to include it in the taste test of this Southern classic. The sweetness factor was in full force in this sweet tea. “A bit sugary for me,” one taster said. “Hello diabetes!” Another taster said, “It’s sweeter than candy and too sweet to be refreshing.” However, others found the balance perfect. “It didn’t make me vomit,” one taster said. Another judge said, “Not overly sweet, could drink a whole glass without getting diabetes.” Our verdict for this sweet tea is that it tastes better poured over ice and served with fried chicken and biscuits.
23 Color and clarity: 33 Flavor: 29 Total: 85
Milo’s has been a Southern favorite since 1948. The classic sweet tea was created by Milo and Bea Carlton after he returned to Alabama from serving in World War II. Today, the family-owned business still makes the sweet tea using high quality, natural ingredients with no preservatives added. The balance of tea flavor and sweetness was the most appealing quality of this brand. Some tasters acatually thought this tea wasn’t sweet enough; however, most found the sweetness to be the closest to what we think of when we think of sweet tea. “YAS. Mama would be proud,” one taster said. “Perfectly moderately sweet.” Another said, “It has the perfect amount of balance. … It’s the most balanced and tolerable.” Yet another wrote: “You can drink more than one sip without getting sick.” “Likely the least sweet, but definitely still sweet tea, but with an emphasis on tea,” said another. A final thought on the winner: “(Milo’s) sweetness is muted in the best possible way.”
28 Color and clarity: 30 Flavor: 34 Total: 92
From the data we collected, we also calculated the average sweetness of each tea. On a scale of 1 to 5, tasters rated each tea on the level of sweetness, with 1 being the perfect amount of sweetness and 5 tasting like straight sugar.
Here are the results for average sweetness of each sweet tea: Publix: 3, Zaxby’s: 3.5, Sweet Leaf: 3.63, Milo’s: 3.75, Bojangle’s: 4, McDonald’s: 4.25, Chick-fil-A: 4.375.
Rachel Taylor is a staff writer at Southern Kitchen. She moved to Atlanta earlier this year after graduating college in Maryland, and has been a digital audience specialist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Politically Georgia, as well as a freelance writer for publications such as USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She has lived in France and Italy, and loves to travel.