When it comes to their choice of beverage to drink alongside a plate of barbecue, Southerners have plenty of options—and some pretty strongly-held preferences, too. These are our picks for the top five barbecue beverages in the South.
It’s fair to say that Southerners are quite divided on the subject of whether beer should be served with barbecue, and you can divide the South into wet, moist, and dry zones based upon the percentage of barbecue joints that offer beer. The Carolinas are by far the driest region, and virtually none of the classic restaurants in North and South Carolina—nor many of their newer ones, for that matter—offer beer alongside a chopped pork basket or pulled pork plate. The line seems to blur somewhere down in Georgia, for as you head west the beer coolers start popping up with greater frequency, and a good percentage of classic Alabama joints—the Green Top in Jasper, the Golden Rule in Irondale, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa—serve suds. Things are pretty scattershot in Tennessee, where 26 out of the state’s 95 counties are still dry, but by the time you get to Memphis, beer is par for the course, and it’s omnipresent in Texas.
#4: Big Red
If it’s not a beer that’s sitting next to a Texan’s big sheet of butcher paper mounded with brisket and sausage, odds are it’s a Big Red soda. Fire-engine red and candy sweet, it was launched in Waco in 1937 and soon became a fixture at Juneteenth celebrations as well as in the region’s many barbecue joints. Despite its bright red color, the drink is technically a cream soda, and the vanilla and citrus merge to taste just like bubble gum. That might not sound like something that would blend well with tender smoky beef, but the combination turns out to be absolutely delicious.
#3: Red Rock Strawberry Soda
Perhaps the rarest and most highly-regionalized barbecue beverage is Red Rock Strawberry Soda, and if you know what that is you probably live in the Pee Dee region of northwestern South Carolina. The Red Rock line is made in Atlanta and includes cola and ginger ale, but for some reason the strawberry version’s strongest commercial foothold is in the area between Florence and Myrtle Beach. Very sweet with a big, fruity strawberry taste, it’s the perfect counterpoint to the fiery spiciness of the whole hog barbecue found at places like Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway.
If you’re eating barbecue in the Piedmont of North Carolina, you’re pretty sure to find a bottle of Cheerwine nearby. The cherry-flavored soft drink has been produced by the Carolina Beverage Company of Salisbury since 1917, and, no, there’s no alcohol or wine in it. Deep red color and quite fizzy, the beverage is sold these days from West Virginia all the way down to Florida, but the Carolinas are still where it’s most popular. Like Big Red and Red Rock, it has sweet, fruity notes that balance out the smoke and the tang of vinegar-laced pork, and to my tastebuds the darker cola flavors add a firm foundation underneath.
#1: Sweet Tea
Beer might be inconsistently embraced and soda preferences can be highly-regional, but the South is united in its appreciation for one barbecue beverage. Some folks call it “sweet tea” or “iced tea” or, slightly more compactly, “ice tea.” In many parts, though, it’s simply called “tea,” since there’s no need to clarify that it’s ice-cold and brimming with sugar. (How else would one possibly serve it?) North Carolinians may champion their chopped pork and slaw, Kentuckians their mutton, and Texans their slow-smoked beef, but they’re all happy to wash it down with a big cup of tea.