Britain’s relationship with tea has everything to do with the British empire. The demand for tea made the empire happen. Without the demand for tea, I don’t think it would have gotten as big as it did.* Morning is one part of the ritual as the traditional cuppa breakfast tea is drunk first thing, usually prepared with black loose tea. The ritual of tea continues into the afternoon tea. High tea derived its name from tea set on high tables for maids, cooks, and butlers of the big houses where they had a cup of tea and snacks at around 4 p.m., standing around a high table because there was no time to sit down. Low tea was the name for the tea service presented upstairs to the estate owners at low tables, and among finery.
The tea set and food make up a big part of the British tea ceremony. Upstairs you would find silver or porcelain tea sets, whereas downstairs you would find brown betty teapots. In a British tea service the cups have handles, saucers, and are typically part of a matching set with a pitcher for cream and a server for sugar. Whereas Japan and China use plain cups in their tea rituals, the British love flourish whether that includes floral prints or gold rimmed cups. The teapots used in Great Britain are quite large at 24 – 36 ounces in size and involve a tea strainer set over the tea cup to strain out the tea leaves in the pot. The British diet is heavy and dairy-based, so tea is served with milk and sugar. Scones, clotted cream, jam, crumpets, and finger sandwiches make up an array of afternoon tea foods, which is really a meal. I think this is still true that at 4 p.m. the country comes to a halt for a national teatime.
British tea leans toward black tea all the way, typically teas from India, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Their appreciation for strong tea runs deep. This includes brewing the tea strong by adding a lot of tea to the pot and also selecting dark-liquoring, pungent teas.
Setting up tea programs for our four and five star hotel clients with our distributor in Great Britain, VP of Hospitality, Joane Filler-Varty, adds: “Simpler teas are desired with an emphasis on black teas, a few green teas are added for the health conscious and a few herbal infusions too. Great variation exists between contemporary and traditional set-up, but the British tend to be traditional and the type of teaware used tends to be more formal. Some higher end hotels use loose tea for room service, while others use whole leaf tea pouches for in-room dining.”
While the British tea ritual might be vastly different than the Chinese tea ceremony or the Japanese tea ceremony, there are nuances that articulate how particular details come together in this tea practice that is passed down. Details exist specific to the British tea service such as “backing the pot.” This refers to pulling the teapot back prior to serving guests tea as a way to circulate the liquid before serving it.
*For more on this, check out the book, For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose.