Long before my dependency to triple grande cappuccinos and a hardcore Starbucks
addiction, my elixir of choice was iced tea. I used to pound glasses of the stuff, the sweeter the better. Thankfully my palate matured, and my tongue literally started to reject the cloyingly sweet cans of Nestea I once found so refreshing. Nowadays the only tea you’ll find in my fridge is the unsweetened kind. But recently, while researching for a food road trip, I discovered a regional phenomenon tucked inside Northeastern Pennsylvania that's makes me want to reconsider. There's a roughly 20-mile triangular area between the towns Hazleton, Lehighton and Tamaqua. Each town has their own respective dairy farm which has been making iced tea since the 1960's. I'm talking old school cardboard pints of sugary, lemony goodness; picture your elementary school milks from childhood. While dairy farm iced tea is not unique to just PA, nowhere else are there three independent brands in such close proximity. For decades, grocery stores, quickie marts and hoagie shops throughout that area have been selling the sweet tea. And the only thing determining whether they are carrying Farmer's, Zimmerman's or Guers depends on which farm is closest I HAD TO TRY THEM ALL!
Dairy Farms Make Iced Tea? I Don't Get It!
Pennsylvania is the eighth largest milk producing state in the country, but according to the USDA, milk consumption has been in a steady decline since 1970, long before
the trend of oat, almond and other dairy alternatives. In order to keep from closing, many dairy farms pivoted to manufacturing iced tea in order to fill production capacity. The infrastructure was already in place, so it was really a genius move which preserved their existence. Now these 3 NEPA dairy farms produce more tea than milk. For instance, as WNEP (their pic above) reports, Guer's dairy sells 55,000 pints a week making it their biggest seller.
These teas are pretty much void of nutritional value and you're more likely to get a sugar rush than a caffeine high, but if you ever want an authentic taste of this part of Pennsylvania, pair one with an Italian hoagie and a bag of Middleswarth Sour Cream & Onion potato chips. They all taste similar to me; very sweet with an almost effervescence like feeling when you swallow, although this is not a carbonated drink. Despite my inability to tell them apart, locals loyal to their own brand swear they can taste a difference in a blind "taste off".
But Wait, There's Some Adult Fun As Well
About 100 miles to the South, the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia has been obsessed with drinking cartons of Arctic Splash iced tea. Since the mid 90's, cartons of this Texas based dairy farm iced tea could be found everywhere in the hood. So much so, that news articles and Instagram pages were dedicated to tracking discarded cartons around town. The beverage became the unofficial symbol of Fishtown. In 2012, The Interstate Draft House, an intimate Philly bar created the Fishtown Iced Tea, a boozy cocktail consisting of rum, tequila, triple sec, vodka and sour mix, served inside an opened container of tea. But be careful though, not only does the cocktail make you forget about the sugary coating your teeth gets from sipping the sweet tea, drinking too many of Philly's version of a Long Island Iced Tea might make you forget about the whole night. Last year Arctic Splash unexpectedly discontinued their cardboard pint containers causing a temporary panic. But don't fret, Interstate Drafthouse teamed up with Rectified Spirits and have created a Fishtown Tea in the can which they sell at the bar. Other Philly bars like O'Jungs on South 2nd Street and McCusker's Tavern in South Philly are continuing the Fishtown Tea Cocktail in a carton using The Pa Dairy Farm Triangle's Farmer's Tea.
Also check out Down River Brewing Co in Stroudsburg PA, as they teamed up with Zimmerman's for their "Gimme a Zimmie" hard tea, a pleasantly sweet tea and lemony pop. If you ask me, it's just a matter of time that Philly's Fishtown Iced Tea becomes a nationwide hit.
I won't be stocking my refrigerator with these going forward (my kidneys applaud) and I am not suggesting that we start a PA Dairy Farm Trail, but if you happen to be driving through the NEPA countryside and make a stop, be on the lookout for a pint.