Fruit Tea Time in Middle Tennessee
Southerners have long been known for their infatuation with sweet tea, but in Tennessee, fruit tea is a regional specialty. Typically made with sweet tea, orange and pineapple juices, and limeade or lemonade, fruit tea is served at restaurants and in home kitchens throughout the state, though we’ve found it to be most commonly known – and loved – in Middle Tennessee.
Right Up Our Alley
Stephen Ashburn grew up in Murfreesboro drinking his mother’s fruit tea, so when he started a restaurant called the Alley Cafe in Smithville in 2002, he included it on the menu.
“My mother had an awesome recipe for fruit tea, so it was a must-have at my restaurant,” Ashburn says. “In 2006, we had a couple dine at the cafe who loved the fruit tea so much, the gentleman asked why we weren’t bottling the product. I told him I was too busy running a restaurant. It turns out his best friend had started the Sun Drop citrus soda corporation, and he really encouraged me to start bottling it.”
Ashburn took his customer’s advice and began selling the fruit tea, branded Alley Cat Tea, right there in the restaurant. But as fate would have it, in 2009, lightning struck the building, and it burned to the ground.
“I decided not to re-open the restaurant and instead to commercially bottle Alley Cat Tea,” Ashburn says. “When we do demos in stores, we often run into people who don’t like tea, and we tell them to give it a try. I enjoy seeing their reaction when they taste our product. Some say it’s the best tea they’ve ever had.”
Made with oranges, lemons, pineapples, filtered water, pure cane sugar and black tea, Alley Cat Tea contains 48 percent juice and is all-natural with no artificial flavors. Today, you can find it in the natural foods section of Kroger and Publix stores throughout Tennessee (as well as other major retailers) and in southern Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.
“Just like Nashville is known for hot chicken, Middle Tennessee is known for fruit tea,” Ashburn says. “Marketing fruit tea outside Middle Tennessee has been an educational experience for our customers. The beauty of ours is you can serve it cold on ice, but it can also be served hot as a spiced tea, and you can even use it as a marinade for chicken or pork. It’s very versatile.”
In 2016, Alley Cat Tea added a new flavor called Southern Mint that is available in select Publix stores.
“In the South, many people like a fresh sprig of mint in their tea,” Ashburn says. “Our Southern Mint tea mimics that very subtle hint of mint.”
Fruit tea is a staple on the menu at many Middle Tennessee restaurants, including the popular Nashville Caribbean-inspired eatery, Calypso Cafe. Calypso serves fruit tea at all three of its locations (Berry Hill, Charlotte Avenue and East Nashville) both by the glass – with free refills – and by the gallon for carryout.
“Many customers come in just to get a fruit tea,” says Allison Wills Brooks, co-founder of Calypso Cafe with her husband, Phil Brooks. “We’ve been serving it since we opened in 1989. My mother used to make it, and they make variations in the Caribbean, often with rum. My mother’s was super sweet, but what makes ours unique is we brew the tea fresh, add juices and go light on the sugar. The compliment we get most about our fruit tea is it’s not too sweet, but just right.”
In Brentwood, Puffy Muffin bakery and restaurant adds ginger ale to its fruit tea, giving it surprising flavor twist.
“We call ours Ginger Tea. Our owner created the recipe when we opened 30 years ago because she didn’t like sweet or unsweet tea,” says Jennifer Anneken, general manager at Puffy Muffin. “It surprises some people because they think it’s going to be different than it is. We don’t put pineapple in ours, but we do use orange juice and limeade. It’s very sweet and extremely popular with our customers.”
Puffy Muffin’s Ginger Tea is made fresh every morning by two servers, and they sell it by the glass, half-gallon and gallon.
“One server will make the concentrate and another will mix in the ginger ale,” Anneken says. “It takes 45 minutes every day for two servers to make it.”
At Square Market & Cafe in Columbia, fruit tea has been a customer favorite since it opened in 2003.
“We make our fruit tea with pineapple juice, and the combination of ingredients makes our tea very thirst-quenching – not too sweet, so you can swig it down easily,” says Debra Mann, owner of Square Market & Cafe. “Fruit tea is a customer favorite, summer, winter, it doesn’t matter what season. It’s a delight any time of year, and kids enjoy it too. Our Northern neighbors are learning more about it – we have customers buy it to keep in their car while traveling, and I’m sure the glass is empty when they reach home.”
Additional restaurants where customers flip for fruit tea include Bread & Co. Bakery & Cafe, Dalts American Grill, Baja Burrito, Star Bagel and Loveless Cafe (all in Nashville) and The Brass Lantern in Lawrenceburg. And we’ve probably left out some of your favorites, so let us know what we’ve missed – or to share your family’s variation of this recipe in the comments.