I was never a big tea fan – I just didn't care for the taste of it. Then several years ago, I had the first of several tea-related revelations.
First, my girlfriend (who would later become my wife) convinced me to have some tea to help clear out a head cold. I tried it under protest, but to my chagrin, it worked. So I kept drinking it. Next thing I knew, I found I liked the taste of hot tea.
Next, I tried Swiss Premium's "Southern Brew" sweet tea (now simply called "Sweet Tea" with a little banner that says "Southern Style) while on a business trip. I suddenly understood why people practically worshiped this beverage. I've been hooked since.
Now that I had experienced sweet tea, I was on the look out for it, and on another business trip to Birmingham, Alabama I found myself at a local barbecue joint (surprise, surprise) and had some of their freshly brewed sweet tea. Now, here I was, in the deep south, eating BBQ and drinking sweet tea. A light shone upon me and there were small angels around me, blowing their little trumpets, announcing the complete and total conversion of me from tea hater to tea lover.
Since then, a little restaurant chain you may have heard of – I believe they are called McDonald's – has introduced their own "sweet tea" available in 32 ounce cups (they use the word "cup" loosely – more like "vat"). You're also seeing sweet tea crop up in more supermarkets, and Arizona's own Southern Style sweet tea show up in more and more convenience stores. I've even seen a gallon of Arizona's sweet tea on local (New England) Walmart shelves.
To me, flavors don't start crossing over into the mainstream though until you see other categories pick them up. Example: the only place you ever saw "Pomegranate" was in POM Wonderful's obscenely expensive juices. Once people caught wind of the health benefits and started to enjoy the flavor, it cropped up everywhere – you can now get gum, vodka, popsicles and candles all with the taste and/or aroma of Pomegranate.
So it was with great interest that I've seen the introduction of sweet tea-flavored vodkas in the last year or so. In my book, when you see a flavor of vodka hitting the shelf of your liquor store, it means that flavor is getting big.
I can see why people enjoy sweet tea: it is probably the closest thing to a sugary soft drink that you can drink and not feel overly guilty about it. Yes, it has sugar in it, but it is usually made with real sugar (not high fructose corn syrup) and has the benefits of antioxidants from the tea, and no carbonation. It is sweet, but light and refreshing as well.
It would seem to be well within the realm of possibility that it is only a matter of months before sweet tea breaks out into the culinary mainstream, similar to how martinis, cupcakes, and whoopie pies have gotten press at various times over the last few years as the "hot new trend." Just remember that you read it here first!