Afternoon (not “High”) Tea

The British Afternoon Tea Ritual

british Tea cupThe British are renowned for stopping everything at four o’clock each day to enjoy Afternoon Tea.

The first thing you need to know is that it’s a major faux pas to confuse “Afternoon Tea” with “High Tea”.

They are very different servings, but since “high” sounds more uppity the misunderstanding is common among the uneducated, unsophisticated, and little traveled.

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea is the service that comes to mind when we think of a sophisticated British tea. It’s the elegant repast served at 4 or 5 pm, consisting of tea with scones, small sandwiches, cakes and other pastries.

A Cream Tea means that clotted cream is served as well. Clotted cream, also called Devonshire cream, is a thick cream made by heating milk until a layer of cream forms on its surface that is then cooled and skimmed off.

Afternoon tea was “invented” by Anna, Duchess of Bedford (1783 – 1857), wife of the 7th Duke, in 1840 as “a way to quell the inevitable hunger pangs between lunch and dinner”. In other words, she “got too hungry for dinner at eight…”!

In the 19th century large meaty breakfasts were common and luncheon was a light sort of picnic with no servants present. Dinner was not served until 8 pm, so it is perfectly understandable that the duchess got a little hungry in the late afternoon.

Traditionally, a formal afternoon tea is performed according to certain rules of etiquette. At intimate gatherings the tea server (usually the hostess) pours the tea while seated with her guests.

The server first asks “Sugar?”, then “one lump or two?”. The sugar, if requested, is placed in the cup using specially designed sugar tongs.

Then she asks, “Milk, or lemon?” Milk and lemon should not be used together since lemon curdles the milk. Fresh milk is the best choice for Indian or African teas, and lemon for Ceylon or China teas.

The milk is poured before the tea. (But see Tea Trivia below!!)

For the lemon-takers, a plate garnished with thinly sliced lemons is offered with a small fork. Most British think that the addition of lemon is pretentious/affected!

After handing the cup to the guest, hot water is offered for those who like their tea weaker.

Once everyone is served tea, the guests select traditional tea fare from the table or a tiered cake stand. The goodies can include crumpets slathered with butter, tea breads with fresh and dried fruits, dainty well-trimmed tea sandwiches, tall stand cakes, flaky scones, tart jams, lemon curds, small cookies, etc. Each guest takes a napkin, a small plate, and a butter knife for spreading jam, cream or sweet butter.

It takes some practice to balance a full cup, saucer, plate piled high with cakes and sandwiches, knife and napkin, but dropping crumbs and spilling tea are initiation rites and part of the enjoyment of the ceremony.

For Hotel restaurant or Tea Room service, wait staff serve customers at individual tables.

The English High Tea

High tea is a hearty rural working class supper consisting of hot meat, cheese, and egg dishes served around 6 pm.

High tea was the main meal of farming and working class of Britain in the past, but is little used nowadays in the UK, although it seems to still be common in some areas of Ireland.

High tea was conceived in the late nineteenth century as the workingman’s supper; it is generally a family meal served early in the evening. High tea was designed to refuel the body that has labored long and hard in sometimes less-than-agreeable environments such as coalmines or factories.

All of the foods to be served are set on the table or high counter at the beginning of the meal. Typical fare includes freshly baked bread warm from the oven (hearty wheat, oat or barley breads), Rarebit (a savory dish of cheese sauce served over toast), Cornish pasties filled with meat and vegetables, hot cross buns, and large helpings of sweet baked goods. Some traditional high tea sweets include seed cake, shortbread, crumbled cookies named “Fat Rascals,” and almond cakes known as “Maids of Honor”.

Tea Trivia (or: God Save the Queen…from Cracked China!)

The British Standards Institute has proclaimed that milk is best poured before the tea, though some tea lovers debate this.

Those in favor say that the hot water scalds the milk, which brings out the tea’s flavor. (And they never use cream, as it masks the tea’s taste.) Others have speculated that the milk-first theory prevents the china from cracking in reaction to the boiling water.

Putting the milk in second would be best to regulate the strength of the tea. But Tea was once very expensive and since milk was really cheap, it made more sense to use a minimum of the cheap commodity to bring the tea to the right strength.

There seems to be a status/class element here according to my British friends! For many years in England “She’s a bit m.i.f” meaning “milk in first” suggested someone common (middle or working class) partly because the more posh households had porcelain which could withstand the full heat of freshly boiling water while poorer ones would have earthenware, which is more susceptible to cracking under heat.

TEA, the beverage

tea potTea is second only to water as the world’s most popular drink. Tea is an aromatic beverage prepared by infusion with boiling water of the leaves of an eastern Asian evergreen shrub or small tree (Camellia sinensis) having fragrant, nodding, cup-shaped white flowers and glossy leaves. Only the top bud and top two to four leaves below it are plucked to make the beverage.

The flavor of tea is due to volatile oils, its stimulating properties to caffeine, and its astringency or “pucker” to the tannin content. Tea is high in Vitamin B-2 (Riboflavin).

Other factors affecting flavor characteristics are the methods of processing, the blending together of teas from different regions, and the additions of flowers, fruit, essential oils (Earl Grey, for example, has oil of bergamot, which is made from a type of bitter orange) or fragrant herbal or spice additives (like the jasmine flowers added to jasmine tea).

The original English pronunciation of the word tea was “tay” and can be traced back to around 1655 when the Dutch introduced both word and beverage to England. The pronunciation tee also originated in the 1600’s but only gained predominance after the late 18th century.

Both words may have come from the Malay teh and from the Chinese Mandarin character “cha” pronounced “t’e” in the Amoy (Xiamen) dialect. The Japanese character for tea is written exactly the same as the Chinese, though pronounced with a slight difference.

The Tea plant

The main producers of the Camellia sinensis plant are India and Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malawi, Indonesia and China.

This is the only plant from which “real” tea is produced. All other beverages that are loosely referred to as “tea” such as “herbal teas” are really herbal infusions or decoctions.

All tea begins with the harvesting of the newest foliage from the bush. Though the tea plant has flowers, a nut-like fruit, and is related to the flowering garden variety of Camellia, the flowers are not used in making tea. Only the unopened leaf bud and the top two or four youngest leaves on a branch are ever used.

Next, the freshly plucked leaves go through a process called “withering.” They are put in a warm dry place for most of a day and allowed to wilt until they contain only about 40% of their  original moisture. Then the leaves are “rolled” or “curled.” This step used to be done by hand, with the workers grabbing bunches of wilted leaves and rolling them between the palms of their hands, pressing to crush the leaf cells.

Tea comes in many varieties, however, based on the way the leaves are processed, all teas are divided into four basic types: black, green, oolong, and the very rare white.


Black Tea

Black tea is the most popular tea in the West. The crucial step in making black tea is to allow the juices in the rolled fresh leaves to darken from contact with the air. Tea makers call this process “fermentation,” although, technically, it is “oxidation.” A similar process occurs when the flesh of a cut apple turns brown. The dark substances that form while the tealeaves are exposed to the air are produced by the chemical reactions of the tannins in the tea.

The leaf is spread out and left to wilt, losing some moisture, stiffness and much of its weight. Then it’s rolled, exposing essential oils to the air and starting the oxidization process. The oxidizing stage of tea processing does not take long, no more than four hours. When the leaves have transformed sufficiently, then they are “fired,” dried over heat to stop the oxidation process.

Tannins give the tea astringency, robust flavor and aroma, and they leach into hot water to produce the characteristic reddish-amber color (the Chinese, preferring to designate the tea by its color after brewing call black teas “red teas”).

Black teas are full bodied and are able to withstand the addition of sweeteners and milk.

Some of the popular black teas include English Breakfast (its hearty flavor mixes well with milk), Darjeeling (a blend of Himalayan teas with a flowery bouquet) and Orange Pekoe (a blend of Ceylon teas that is the most widely used of the tea blends).

  1. Pekoe teasThe four grades of black tea are: 1. Flowery Orange Pekoe (the small leaf next to the bud). 2. Orange Pekoe (the second leaf next to the bud). 3. Pekoe (the third leaf next to the bud). and 4. Souchong (the fourth leaf next to the bud).The word “pekoe,” used in grading black teas, comes from the Chinese word meaning “silver-haired.” This refers to the silvery down found on especially young tealeaves. “Orange Pekoe” is neither flavored with oranges nor especially orange-colored.

    “Orange” probably comes from the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange. (The Dutch played a major role in bringing tea to the West, and the Dutch East India Company was the first large tea trading company in Europe.) So Orange Pekoe tea is a fancy grade of black tea, as indicated by the reference to Dutch nobility and the fact that it contains particularly young tea leaves.

  2. Darjeeling and Assam teasThe climate and terrain in the area where tea shrubs are grown have a considerable effect on the flavor of the harvest, so regions of origin are often a part of a tea’s name. Assam and Darjeeling teas, two favorites from India, are examples.In the early 19th century, the British, eager to gain control of a tea-producing area, were thrilled to discover tea plants growing wild in Assam, the very northeastern region of India. Soon, they had their colonists producing great quantities of Assam tea to supply the Empire. Darjeeling, less than 200 miles from where those first wild tea plants were found is in the Himalayas, and has a view of Mount Everest. The altitude is credited with giving the tea plants the benefit of a long, slow growing season.

Green Tea

Green tea has a more delicate taste and is light green/golden in color. Green tea, a staple in the Orient, is gaining popularity in the U.S. due in part to recent scientific studies linking green tea drinking with health benefits. Green tea is high in polyphenols and low in caffeine.

Green teas are not oxidized; they are merely withered and dried. The leaves are steamed right after the withering stage, which destroys the enzymes that would otherwise cause the darkening. The steamed leaves are rolled and immediately fired.

Thus, the dried tealeaves remain green, and the brewed tea, a pale green liquid, has a subtle, slightly bitter flavor, with grassy hints of the flavor of the fresh plant. Because the tannins do not go through the oxidizing process, which has a mellowing effect, green tea can be bitter, more astringent than black, especially if it is steeped for a long time.

Because the leaf is so delicate, the tea should be brewed in water that is well below boiling to prevent cooking the leaves and destroying the subtle notes of the tea. Green tea has a short life span – it doesn’t stay fresh long.

Gunpowder, Imperial, and Hyson teas

Gunpowder, Hyson, and Imperial are popular Chinese green teas. Gunpowder is made with high-grade, young leaves that have been rolled into small, tight balls. The loose tea looks a little like small lead shot. Hyson (the word means “young spring”) teas are also made with young leaves, but they are not rolled so tightly. The Imperial designation indicates that a tea has been made with slightly older leaves.


The greenest of the green teas, matcha, is made from very high-quality tea leaves ground into a fine powder. It is associated especially with the ritual Japanese ceremony, the Chado, or the “Way of Tea.” The powder, which is stored in a container called a natsume, is bright spring-leaf green.

It is prepared by using a special bamboo whisk to mix the powder and hot water. The final product is a cloudy emerald liquid topped with a layer of brilliant green foam. It is traditionally sipped out of a small bowl. Because the actual tea particles are held in suspension in the water, rather than being steeped and strained out in the usual way, matcha is very strong and bitter.

Oolong Teas

Oolong teas are the teas that are most often served in Chinese restaurants. They are known for their rich tastes and lasting aftertastes. Oolongs and pouchongs are processed the same way that black teas are, but they aren’t allowed to oxidize fully.

For pouchong tea, the oxidizing step is reduced to about one-quarter of the full length.

Oolongs, which are more popular, ferment longer, about half as long as a black tea. Predictably, the flavor of a semi-fermented tea is somewhere in between black tea and green tea.

Particularly good oolongs are supposed to have a peachy flavor and aroma. One of the best of these, Formosa Oolong, is produced on the island of Taiwan. The word Formosa comes from the name given to Taiwan by 16th-century Portuguese explorers “Ilha Formosa”, meaning “Beautiful Island.”

Black Dragon and Pouchong (Pao-Chung) are examples of oolong teas.

White tea

White tea is minimally processed, usually only air dried and slightly oxidized. The highest quality white teas are picked before the leaf buds have opened, while still covered with silky white hairs. Of all teas, whites probably have the least amount of caffeine.

These teas should be steeped in water well below boiling and for at least 4-5 minutes.

White teas include Flowery White Pekoe, Silver Needles and Noble Beauty.

Herbal Teas

Herbal teas are only called teas because they are steeped the way “real tea” is, but are not made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Technically, herbal or medicinal teas are “tisanes” or “infusions”.

Herbal and “medicinal” teas are created from the flowers, berries, peels, seeds, leaves and roots of many different plants.

Chamomile and Peppermint are just two of the many herbal teas available today.

The Gentleman’s Guide to a Perfect Cup of Tea

Brewing the Perfect Cuppa

Even the very finest tea chosen with great care and precision can be a disappointment if improperly brewed. Whether served from cups of white jade or heavy mugs, a perfect and pleasurable cup of tea is within reach of those who follow a few simple steps:

Fill an empty kettle with fresh cold water that has flowed freely from the faucet for a minute or two; running the water allows it to become fully aerated, providing the most flavorful tea. If the tap water is too full of minerals such as iron, use bottled water. Place the kettle on the burner and bring to a rolling boil over medium heat.

While the water is heating, pour hot water into an earthenware or porcelain (or even glass) teapot with a loose-fitting lid. Don’t use aluminum as it leaves a taste in the tea infusion.

When the water is about to boil, empty the warming water from the teapot and measure into it one teaspoonful of tea per cup, plus the requisite “one for the pot.”

The best tea is brewed from whole, loose leaves. Whole tealeaves are not only fresher and of better quality than most tea bags, they also produce a more complex beverage as the leaves unfurl. Loose tea will keep for up to a year if stored properly in an airtight container to protect it from moisture and odors.

As soon as the water in the kettle boils, turn off the heat. Do not over-boil the water or it loses oxygen and even the finest tea will taste flat. On the other hand, do not under-boil the water. The water must be at a full rolling boil to release the full flavor from the leaves, otherwise the result will be a weak brew. Bring the pot to the kettle, never the kettle to the pot. This ensures that the water temperature is closest to boiling.

Pour the water over the tealeaves. Put the lid on the pot, cover and let steep for five minutes. If brewing by the cup, use the saucer to cover the cup and retain the heat.

When using tea bags, squeeze them gently before removing. Generally, tea bags should be steeped for less time because they are comprised of lower-grade tea, which brews quickly.

Teab agTo make a stronger tea, increase the amount used rather than lengthen the brewing time. Strength of tea cannot be judged by color; some tealeaves brew light while others make a dark liquid.

For small leaves such as English and Irish Breakfast blends and Assam teas, steep for three minutes. Medium leaves of Ceylon, Breakfast, Orange Pekoe, and Queen Mary are best when brewed for four to five minutes.

Large leaves such, as Oolongs, Jasmine and Earl Grey should brew for five to six minutes.

Don’t leave the tealeaves in for more than six minutes or the result will be a bitter-tasting drink.

Gently stir the tea before pouring into the cups. If the teapot has an effective built-in strainer, pour directly into the cup. If not, pour into the cup through a strainer. A teapot of hot water standing by may be used to dilute the brew to the guest’s preference. If all of the tea is not to be served immediately, pour off the brewed tea into a separate heated pot, as continued steeping will make it taste heavy and bitter.