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British Tea Culture: Tips From A Brit

Every Brit who came across a certain TikTok of an American lady explaining how to make ‘British tea’ was simultaneously horrified and amused at how wrong she was. Seriously, every single stage was wrong.

It involved a microwave, adding milk to water before any actual tea, and several other errors. Sacrilege!

So for the correct information about British tea culture, how to make a cup of tea and how to order one at a cafe, keep reading.

Photo by Calum Lewis on Unsplash

A History of Tea In The UK

In the 1600s tea began to be sold in England’s coffeehouses. Yes, you read that correctly. We had coffee before we had tea. It was substantially more expensive than coffee at the time, so was primarily consumed by the aristocratic classes. 

Originally it was prepared as a black tea, without sugar and milk, but as sugar was another expensive commodity adding sugar was a way to show that they were wealthy enough to afford luxuries. 

In the 18th century, tea prices started to come down, so it became more popular with the middle class. Preparing and drinking tea became associated with a particular standard of manners. 

Prices continued to fall and more tea was imported to the UK, and by the end of the 18th century, tea was considered a necessity to English life and everyone was drinking it. 

Today, it is a standard drink. Most British households will have tea in their house, even if they don’t drink it every day. Coffee and herbal teas have become more popular in the last few decades, but tea is available everywhere.

My parents drink several cups per day – it’s their primary liquid intake, and it’s common for people to drink several cups during the day. 

How To Make A Cup Of Tea

When Using Tea Bags

Boil the kettle. Water is never microwaved, always boiled in a kettle. 

Add teabag to your mug of choice

Add freshly boiled water to the mug

Allow to brew for 3-5 minutes

Remove teabag

Add milk and/or sugar to taste

When Using Loose Leaf Tea

Boil the kettle

Rinse the teapot with hot water to warm it up and then empty

Add loose-leaf tea to the pot

Add freshly boiled water to the pot

Allow to brew from 3-5 minutes

Pour tea into your cup, using a tea strainer to catch the leaves if your teapot doesn’t have one inside.

Add milk and/or sugar to taste. 

The ratio of tea to milk is a personal preference, but tea should make up the bulk of the drink. Most people make tea at home and work using teabags as it is quicker and often cheaper than buying loose-leaf tea.

Everyone has their preferred brand of teabags – popular brands include PG Tips, Taylor’s Yorkshire Tea and Twinings. 

If you are offered a cup of tea in someone’s home or the workplace and say yes, you will almost always get the immediate follow-up question – how do you take it?

This is your invitation to specify how strong you like your tea and if you want milk or sugar. My standard answer would be ‘with milk, no sugar’. 

If a person is drinking their tea and wants more, hot water is NEVER added to top it up. You make a fresh cup of tea, not amend the perfectly brewed cup they already have. 

Tea is consumed throughout the day, not just as a morning drink. 

Ordering Tea In Cafes and Restaurants

Unless you are going out for Afternoon Tea with the associated cakes and sandwiches, ordering tea in a cafe or restaurant will result in an English Breakfast teabag in a cup or mug of hot water. You don’t need to specify ‘hot tea’, the assumption is that you are ordering a hot drink. 

If you want iced tea or a herbal or fruit tea you need to order that upfront. Otherwise, you’ll get an English Breakfast tea to which you can then add milk and sugar. 

Iced tea in the UK will generally be a bottle of pre-made Lipton. It’s very rare for people to drink iced tea, so it won’t automatically be available.

If you are having Afternoon Tea in a tearoom or hotel, you will be brought a pot of loose-leaf tea and a strainer to pour the liquid through to catch the tea leaves. A jug of milk and sugar will be on the table for you to add to your cup. 

You might also be given a jug of hot water. This is to be added to the teapot to make more tea, not to top up your cup and weaken the tea in it.

Tea Etiquette and Tips

If you are having Afternoon Tea at a fancy hotel, then there are additional points of etiquette regarding the use of teaspoons and napkins, but as this is more of a tourist activity you won’t be judged harshly. The tips below are for day-to-day casual tea drinking. 

Sticking your little finger out when drinking tea is a no-no. It might have been a common practice once, but these days it will mark you as a non-tea drinker and be considered an affectation.

Don’t slurp your tea – making noises when drinking tea is considered rude.

Just like in pubs where people buy drinks in rounds, in the workplace it is common for people to offer and make tea for everyone in their immediate vicinity and if you partake it is polite to offer to make tea for those people later on.

In homes and workplaces, you might see people dipping a biscuit into their tea before eating it. This shouldn’t be done in formal settings like Afternoon Tea. I never do it, but that’s primarily because I’m not a biscuit fan. It’s not a practice that appeals to me but I also don’t consider it rude for someone else to do it.

And when the British say biscuits, we mean these in the image below. 

It is common and polite, but not a requirement, to offer a cup of tea to a tradesperson doing work in your home, for example, an electrician or plumber. If they ask for a ‘builder’s tea’, they mean a strong cup of tea (that has been brewed for several minutes) with a small amount of milk.

As you can see in my cup of tea, there are some small filmy bits on the top of the mug – this is nothing to be concerned about. It doesn’t mean the tea is bad – some UK areas such as London have ‘hard’ tap water which contains higher levels of calcium carbonate. Compounds in the tea bind to the calcium carbonate and form these bits of oily film. You can ignore them and drink the cup as it is. 

Conclusion

Hopefully, by now you’ve got a good idea of how and when we Brits drink tea. For more information on the cultural idiosyncrasies of the UK, have a look at my tips for first time visitor to the UK.

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