English Afternoon Tea Time

This is the first of a series of blogs that take you on a little tour of tea ceremonies and traditions around the world.

Today, let’s start with a country famous for her tea time since the 18th century: The United Kingdom. english-tea

Much of the time in the UK, tea drinking is not the delicate, refined cultural expression that the rest of the world imagines or sees in an episode of Downton Abbey.  Instead, a cup (or commonly a mug) of tea is something drunk often, with some people drinking as much as 6 cups of tea a day. This is not to say that the British do not have a more formal tea ceremony, but for the working class, tea breaks are an essential part of any day. Employers generally allow breaks for tea and sometimes biscuits to be served.  Black tea is usually served with milk (never cream) and sometimes with sugar. Strong tea served with lots of milk and often two teaspoons of sugar, usually in a mug, is commonly referred to as “builder’s tea”.  It’s also not uncommon for black tea to be served with lemon.

As for the typical semi-formal British tea ritual, the host usually performs all the following actions:

  • The kettle is boiled and water is poured into a tea pot
  • Water is swirled around the pot to warm it and then poured out
  • Loose tealeaves (usually black) are then added to the pot while the kettle is re-boiled
  • Freshly boiled water is poured over the tealeaves and the tea is brewed for several minutes while a tea cozy is placed on the pot to keep the tea warm
  • A tea strainer is placed over the top of the cup and the tea poured in
  • The straight black tea is then given to guests and they are allowed to add milk and sugar to their taste
  • Whether to put milk into the cup before or after the tea is, and has been since at least the late 20th century, a matter of some debate with claims that adding milk at the different times alters the flavor of the tea.

There is also a proper manner in which to drink tea when using a cup and saucer. If one is seated at a table, the proper manner to drink tea is to raise the teacup only, placing it back into the saucer in between sips. When standing or sitting in a chair without a table, one holds the tea saucer with the left hand and the teacup in the right hand. When not in use, the teacup is placed back in the tea saucer and held in one’s lap or at waist height. In either event, the teacup should never be held or waved in the air. Drinking tea from the saucer (poured from the cup in order to cool it) was not uncommon at one time but is now almost universally considered a breach of etiquette.