Jay Bob Grelen is teed off. Or, more accurately, ”tea’d” off. Born and raised in the South, where iced tea is serious business, he learned to make the amber elixir at his mama’s knee. Over the years, to his dismay, he has encountered entirely too many insipid brews pawned off as the genuine stuff. And bottled iced tea? ”A travesty!” snorts Grelen, 42, who lives in Mobile, Alabama, and writes a daily column for the Mobile Register. In 1993, having had enough, he began dedicating himself to preserving the tradition of genuine southern iced tea—sweet tea, as it’s known around here. He started writing about the subject in his column, alerting readers to top-notch teas in Mobile-area restaurants and homes. And in 1994, he persuaded his newspaper to sponsor a sweet tea brewing contest, called Jay Bob Grelen’s Southern Sweet Tea Sip-Off—which attracts about 40 entrants from all walks of life who travel as many as a hundred miles to do battle. Fairness is paramount in the competition. Grelen avoids choosing contestants’ friends or relatives as judges, and never acts as one himself. Tasting is done blind. The 11 judges cleanse their palates with crackers and rinse with water, a doubly good thing given the bizarre concoctions often submitted (most memorably, apple-orange-mint). Invariably, a plain, unadulterated tea wins, earning its creator first prize—an engraved pewter pitcher.
It’s no surprise that this drink stirs up heated sentiments, given that Americans drank some $4.4 billion worth of tea last year, 80 percent of it over ice. In fact, according to the Tea Council of the U.S.A., Americans consume far more iced tea than any country in the world. For his part, on hot days Grelen downs between one and two quarts—with gusto. ”I’m a Southern Baptist,” he says, laughing, between sips. ”I can’t drink, can’t cuss, can’t dance, and can’t go to Disney World. All I have left is sweet tea.”