A Brief History of English Tea Drinking
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the English love their tea. Whether it’s the super strength Builder’s Brew, ‘…strong enough for a spoon to stand up in it’, or Afternoon Tea with scones and cucumber sandwiches, tea drinking is the pastime of the many throughout the United Kingdom. Tea drinking seeps (or steeps) into all sectors of British society and culture, so without a doubt, it has a fascinating history attached.
A Brief History
Since the 18th Century, the UK has been one of the greatest consumers of tea. Tea originated in Ancient China, though it took several centuries to spread to Europe. But once it did the British embraced it with gusto and spread it further around the world, by introducing tea production to India, and tea drinking to The British Empire. The first written mention of tea in the English language is from English merchants abroad in the early 1600s. By the mid-1600s, it was introduced to English coffee houses. It was known for beneficial health properties and The Royal College of Physicians debated whether these new exotic drinks would ‘…agree with the Constitutions of our English bodies’. I think we can all confirm it did!
The popularity of tea is put down to several elements, from merchant tradesmen adopting it to men embracing the health benefits, to aristocratic women (such as Princess Catherine of Braganza) making it fashionable. The rise of tea also corresponds to the rise of sugar, and it wasn’t until the British began adding sugar to tea that the drink really took off. In the 1800s British colonialists introduced commercial tea production to India in an effort to break China’s monopoly on this global industry. Initially, they used Chinese seeds before discovering India had its own tea plants growing naturally in the Assam region bordering Burma. India remains one of the biggest tea producers in the world today.
As tea became more commonplace and thus more affordable, its consumption spread from the aristocrats to the working classes, and it was soon seen as a staple to get you through the working day. Traditional English teas are usually black teas, blended from Indian varieties such as Assam, Ceylon and Darjeeling. They are served with milk and optional sugar, or occasionally lemon (particularly with Earl Grey Tea).
High Tea and Low Tea
‘High Tea’ or Afternoon Tea was a cultural staple developed by British aristocratic women and quickly became fashionable. Tea was served with selection of sweet and savoury foods, as something between a snack and a small meal. Today, the tradition of Afternoon Tea usually includes scones with cream and jam, cucumber sandwiches, and cakes. Confusingly, this was once known as ‘Low Tea’ because it was taken off a low table in a sitting room, whereas ‘High Tea’ was an evening meal consumed at a dining table, which the working classes ate while drinking their favourite beverage. At some point the upper classes began referring to Afternoon Tea as ‘High Tea’, assuming superiority, one can only guess!
Today, in many working-class cultures, particularly in the north ‘tea’ is the term used to describe an evening meal as well as the drink (rather than the terms ‘dinner’ or ‘supper’ favoured elsewhere). In these cultures, the drink tea is usually consumed in a mug, brewed to high strength and served with milk and sugar. This is sometimes referred to as a Builder’s Brew.
The traditions of aristocratic tea drinking also remain, where tea is brewed in a teapot and served in cups and saucers. Quintessential English cafes serve Cream Tea, which is similar to Afternoon Tea, but includes tea served with scones, cream and jam, rather than with the extra sandwiches and cakes. It is more of a snack than a meal.
Favourite English Teas
English Breakfast Tea: The most commonly drunk tea in the UK is English Breakfast Tea. Although called ‘breakfast tea’, this blend of black teas is drunk throughout the day in the UK, usually with milk and optional sugar.
Earl Grey Tea: The second most popular tea with English heritage is Earl Grey. Earl Grey is tea flavoured with bergamot oil, but also sometimes includes elements of citrus peel, blue cornflowers, and other botanicals in modern blends. It was reputedly named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, as he received it as a diplomatic gift. Earl Grey is traditionally served with either sliced lemon or a dash of milk.
Irish Breakfast Tea: Although the English are famous for their tea consumption, the Irish actually consume slightly more. Irish Breakfast Tea is stronger than English, with a round full-bodied taste, influenced by strong Indian teas such as Assam. Due to its extra strength, Irish Breakfast Tea is the best option for making a traditional Builder’s Brew.