When we heard that travelers on our London tours are always curious about British tea, we reached out to Tour Director, Matthew B., to gain some insight on the history of tea in the British Isles—and learn the proper way to drink it.
The history of tea
Tea is the most popular drink consumed in Britain—over 165 million cups of it are consumed each day. Not only is it the national drink, “shall I put the kettle on?” is at once an invitation for chat, sympathy, counseling or gossip. For a drink so culturally associated with the British Isles, you may be surprised to know that there is nothing British about tea itself: it is a completely adopted product and custom.
Tea is a drink produced from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant and comes from China, India and Africa and other tropical or sub-tropical areas. Its relationship with Britain is inextricably linked with centuries of global trade and empire.
It had been popular with the upper classes since the 1700s, when Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza, started popularizing the drink along with Queen Anne. The tea they drank came from China, where it had been a widely-consumed beverage for around 5,000 years. When tea was introduced to Britain during this time, it was very expensive and refreshingly bitter, first drank in small cups without milk or sugar. For storage, it was kept in locked boxes called tea caddies.
By the early eighteenth century people had started to add milk and sugar, which skyrocketed consumption—tea supplies surged to meet the demand and prices fell. Tea was started to be marketed as a respectable drink and china tea sets became a must in all well-heeled families, with cheaper pottery sets for those with less money. As tea became cheaper it became more available to the working classes.
The ruling classes endorsed and promoted the drinking of tea to the urban, industrial working classes as a way to replace people’s reliance on drinking alcoholic drinks like ale and gin (it was a safer option to the un-purified city water). Tea made with boiling water and sweetened with sugar was advertised as healthy, reviving, safe, energy-giving and didn’t make you drunk—making tea a powerful instrument of social reform and control. Tea drinking in the nineteenth century rocketed to unprecedented levels and the British colonies of India and Ceylon were reshaped to grow tea on a huge scale for the British. By 1900, every person in Britain was consuming, on average, three kilos of tea a year.
When and where to drink tea
People from the British Isles usually drink tea throughout the day, both at home and while at work. Tea time (as we historically know it) is usually around 4 o’clock and bridges the gap between lunch and dinner. Afternoon tea developed as a social event for the upper classes and will nowadays be offered in hotels and posh stores like Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. It’s usually made up of a star-of-the-show-tea and a selection of finger sandwiches and wonderful cakes. Some hotels, like Claridges of London, have been serving afternoon teas for over 150 years. For these formal teas you usually have to book well in advance. It is very fashionable in London at the moment to have afternoon tea at the Goring Hotel (the hotel where Kate spent her last night before she married Prince William).
Slightly more informal (and my personal favorite) is a cream tea. This is a pot of tea served with a fresh scone and clotted cream and jam. To eat, you spread lashings of this wonderful, thick yellow cream over the scone, followed by jam, and then eat. Cream teas will be served all over the U.K.—I am spoiled for choice in my home town of Bath, which is an excellent place to get a cream tea.
And what about milk and sugar? 98% of Brits take their tea with milk but only 30% take it with sugar. The British tend to like stronger black tea—when you order in Britain, you can often ask for Breakfast tea which will be the typically strong black cup of tea served with milk. A great place to buy quality tea is from a wonderful department store called Fortnum and Mason in London; they have a great tea department and sell it packaged in all sorts of tins and boxes, which make great gifts as well.
Have you ever tried tea in the British Isles? What’s your favorite way to drink it?