I realize this list has the potential to ruin us all. Still, I feel its importance cannot be understated. Below I rank sweet tea. As someone with more than 644,460 sweet teas consumed in my lifetime, I feel I have at least scant expertise in the field. Comment your love or hate for this list below.
1 and 2: Bojangles
The Cadillac of sweet tea. It’s dark, bold … a hint of flavors you don’t expect, but you need all the same (seriously, it could be chocolate … it could be coffee … it’s a mystery). Bojangles calls its tea “legendary,” and the title fits. Poured over giant, smooth ice chips, it’s best served in the large styrofoam cups (locally, it’s just 99 cents) — these cups keep it cold for hours. The smaller paper cups condensate, get flimsy quickly and do a poor job of corralling the flavor. Bojangles gets spots 1 and 2 on this list. It’s not even close.
Also best served in the large styrofoam (though that runs you $1.99 here)and poured over large ice, Biscuitville’s sweet tea is great. It’s a bit lighter than Bojangles, thus the flavor isn’t as prevalent, but it’s equally sweet and pretty dang good. A perfectly acceptable alternate.
3: Home-brewed, served in mason jar
For convenience and cost alone, homemade sweet tea rules. It’s No. 3, though, because I said so. Sun-brewed tea is the way to go, but that takes forever. Brewing Lipton or Luzianne in boiling water works, too, and even the Lipton cold-brew tea bags work OK. Making it at home allows you to determine the sugar ratio and the darkness, which is a bonus. But these name brands don’t quite match the big boys. Whatever the quality, it’s instantly notched up two pegs when served in a mason jar.
4: Dairy Bar
In Sanford, the local Dairy Bar — which serves its tea in faux-glass plastic glasses (confusing, I know) — has the best non-fast food restaurant tea. Outside of Sanford, you can usually rely on whatever your best burger joint or fried chicken place is to have the best sweet tea. For example, Beasley’s in downtown Raleigh. A bonus at the Dairy Bar — get your tea to-go … they’ll pour it in a a big styrofoam cup, and like Bojangles, it stays cold for hours and hours.
5: Smithfield/Cook Out
A tie here. Both are great — both served over small crunchy ice, both very sweet (almost too sweet sometimes) and both hit the spot. Cook Out might get the edge because you can order a “huge tea” there, and it’s only 99 cents. But overall, the quality is the same. Because of the ice though, these teas are best experienced without a straw. With a straw, your tea goes fast, and you’re left with a ton of ice. Without a straw, you’re sipping and taking in some ice as you go. Trust me on this. I know what I’m talking about.
6: Most local restaurants
In North Carolina, most non-chain restaurants here know their tea better be good, and for the most part, it is. San Felipe in Sanford, for example, is a Mexican food place, and sweet tea isn’t necessarily a staple in Mexico. But their tea’s good enough … and rarely will you experience “bad tea” at a place like this.
Hardee’s would be higher up if not for their cups. They don’t hold in the “cold” well, they condensate, the lids pop off after a while. Just not a good experience. The tea itself is good, but the experience sucks. You need the experience.
I’m including fast food places that brew their own tea here. McDonald’s tea can taste like spray cleaner sometimes, but on good days, it’s perfectly acceptable. But like the food at most of these places, it’s generic iced tea. Nothing special about it. Nothing that makes you close your eyes as you take it in and dream of back porch swings on hot, summer days. It’s just tea. But it’s aight.
We’re getting into desperate territory here. If you just gotta buy a gallon of sweet tea, it’s like Russian roulette — some of it’s OK, some of it is bland, and some of it tastes like it was made from powder and will make you long for a bullet to the head. Milo’s, which you can buy at Walmart, or the generic sweet tea at Lowe’s Foods, is OK. If you must. It won’t kill you.
119: Flavored sweet teas
Nos. 10-118 are a number of teas from a number of restaurants. We’re just going to jump to flavored sweet teas. There’s very little use for them. I’m not including lemon in your tea here — though I’m not a fan. I do, however, understand a lot of people like this. To me, it’s like adding steak sauce to a perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned steak. It’s unnecessary. But some people do it. I’m talking mostly Snapple teas or places like Wendy’s that serve raspberry teas. They’re typically terrible. I had a blueberry tea that was OK once, but it was probably an anomaly. Peach tea can be OK, but again — why? Why ruin a perfectly good thing? There is no reason. That’s your answer.
233: Store-bought teas
Don’t fall for it. You’re in a convenience store, you’re thirsty, and for some reason you think ,”A fifth Coke today is too much. I’ll get a sweet tea.” Before you sit namebrands like Gold Peak, Pure Leaf, Arizona and Lipton. You pick one up, and after a few sips, regret sinks in. Don’t get to that point. Pass on these — they’re likely made with powders. There’s (probably) no love put into them.
1,403: Unsweet tea