When tourists visit Britain, especially London, one of the activities usually on their must-do list is a proper British afternoon tea. But what is it and how did Britain’s world-famous tea tradition come about?
British afternoon tea is a light meal made up of tea, finger sandwiches, savories, sweets, and scones. Served between 3 PM and 5 PM, afternoon tea was started to help tide the nobility over in the afternoons because dinner was served fashionably late.
Upper-class ladies began eating small snacks and tea in the afternoon, and this quickly turned into a co-ed trendy social affair that was eventually emulated by the lower classes.
Tea-time is an occasion that is observed across much of Asia and Europe, not just in Britain. But an afternoon tea became synonymous with the British people (and the Japanese) because of the formality they put into the ritual.
Read on to learn more about how British afternoon tea differs from other tea traditions around the world and how you can throw a proper British afternoon tea yourself.
What is Afternoon Tea in Britain?
When people say “afternoon tea” in Britain, they are traditionally talking about a specific type of meal, also known as “low tea”.
Afternoon Tea is Also Called Low Tea
Low tea, or afternoon tea, is served in the afternoon and was historically observed by the upper classes, especially the aristocratic nobility. Low tea is meant to be a holdover snack between lunch and supper, and in low tea, it is more common to serve small snacks or appetizers with tea rather than a full meal.
Since bringing tea back from the East during the expansion of the British Empire, the British people have adopted tea as a permanent fixture in everyday life, and this love has gone back for several centuries.
When is Afternoon Tea Served?
Afternoon tea is typically served between 3 PM and 5 PM. It’s designed to fill in that hungry spot between lunch and a late dinner.
Who Invented Afternoon Tea?
British afternoon tea was invented by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who had a habit of becoming hungry around four in the afternoon before formal dinner was served at eight.
Since eight hours between lunch and dinner left the noble ladies famished, the Duchess of Bedford began inviting her best female friends up to her rooms to have snacks and tea every afternoon, and this trend soon caught on with hungry nobility across England. (Source: Historic UK)
Traditional afternoon tea may have originated in Britain with the Duchess, but the expansion of the British Empire—and British trends with it—impacted the popular use of tea globally.
No matter whether you’re drinking chai tea in subcontinental India or having royal tea at the Plaza in New York City, Britain’s tea traditions have influenced formal tea culture around the world.
What Foods Are Served at Afternoon Tea?
The foods that are served at afternoon tea depend on whether a person is participating in a formal “low tea” or if they’re participating in an informal “high tea.”
Low teas are snack-focused affairs, and rather than being served a full meal, guests at a low tea can expect to be served a variety of the following:
- Finger sandwiches (such as cucumber sandwiches)
- Scones with clotted cream and fresh preserves
- Small pastries or cakes
- Bread and butter
- Fresh cut fruit
As you can see, at a low tea, the foods that are served are very light. In fact, it is seen as socially inappropriate to show a hearty appetite at a low tea and stuff your face with snacks.
Instead, proper British ladies and gentlemen are supposed to nibble on the foods between cups of tea.
However, in some cases, British people may have a late dinner following afternoon tea, depending on how much food is served at tea.
However, afternoon tea has remained a familiar term for the fancy afternoon get-togethers thrown for birthday parties and excited tourists.
What Kind of Tea Do the British Drink at Afternoon Tea?
People who don’t drink it may not realize it, but many different kinds of tea are traditionally served at different times of the day.
For British people, English Breakfast is a stronger tea blend that is preferred to be served at breakfast time (hence the name). Lighter, less robust tea blends are preferred for afternoon tea, such as Earl Grey.
In establishments that serve a formal afternoon tea, there may be various teas on offer for guests to choose from. If it is a traditional tea house or cafe, they may have their own blend of tea.
What Can You Add to Your Afternoon Tea?
The types of garnishes served with British tea are typically lemon slices, milk, and sugar.
However, these condiments are not typically used in Asian teas such as matcha tea or oolong tea if those are made available at the tea house.
Afternoon Tea vs. High Tea
High tea is a completely different meal than the traditional afternoon tea or low tea.
Although it sounds counter-intuitive, low tea is considered more formal and “high-brow” than high tea.
High tea traditionally was served around five in the afternoon and is usually observed by the middle or lower classes. It involves eating a full meal with tea right after work since, historically, many laborers did not receive a midday break.
High tea is called high tea because it is served on high kitchen tables rather than the low tables found in formal tea rooms. The food served at high tea is usually heartier and more like a proper meal than more formal afternoon teas.
What is Served at High Tea?
High teas are much less formal and are usually more akin to an early supper than an afternoon snack. Here are some of the foods that are commonly served at high tea:
- Steak and kidney pie
- Potato cakes
- Onion cakes
- Pickled salmon
- Cheese casseroles
- Fish and chips
In many cases, high tea replaces the evening meal for British people, rather than being an afternoon snack on the way to a later meal.
Afternoon tea as terminology for high tea has largely disappeared in modern British society, and many Brits are just as likely to refer to this meal as supper.
Types of Afternoon Tea in Britain
Afternoon tea is distinguished by two major types—low tea and high tea—but there are also a few other variations on afternoon tea traditions.
Here are a few of the different types of afternoon teas that a British person might throw:
Cream tea is a simple afternoon tea where only tea, scones, and clotted cream are served. This type of tea is typically thrown at midday to reduce the disruption of work activities.
A strawberry tea is a tea where fresh fruit like cut strawberries are added to the offerings, along with cream and scones. This is a little more robust than a cream tea and can serve as an afternoon snack.
A light tea is the same as a strawberry tea but with a more diverse selection of pastries and cakes, such as petit fours. A light tea is essentially a full tea without the savory course so that only scones and sweets remain. Light teas may be chosen to offset a heavy dinner later in the evening.
A full tea features not only sweet snacks but savory snacks such as finger sandwiches, too. A full tea is most commonly seen in tea houses, though many restaurants may also feature a menu just for tea-time as well.
A royal tea is a full tea with the addition of a glass of champagne and is typically reserved only for special occasions. (Source: Afternoon Tea Company)
Afternoon tea in Britain is a relatively formal event, but by adjusting the amount of food and the type of food served, it can be made either more or less formal for varying social situations. When tourists visit Britain, they will usually go to a tea house to experience a full tea ceremony.
Etiquette for Afternoon Tea
Since afternoon tea is sometimes a very formal event, there are some rules of etiquette you should keep in mind before attending one to avoid embarrassing yourself or making a social faux pas.
Here are some tips in mind to help you watch your manners during a British afternoon tea:
You don’t have to dress up to go to an afternoon tea in London necessarily, but you don’t want to show up in pajama pants and a tank top either. “Smart casual” is the attire code given by many places that offer afternoon tea, including private residences, but you don’t want to show up in sloppy clothing. It’s just not polite.
Keep your pinky finger down.
Fictional media has taught the world for years that British people drink tea with their pinky sticking up, but it’s simply not the case. Keep your pinky down at the tea table to avoid looking like an out-of-towner.
Remember to stir quietly.
When you stir a teacup, you’re supposed to agitate your spoon up and down rather than stirring it in a circle. This keeps the spoon from making a racket on the edge of the teacup and protects the teacup from damage. It also does just as good of a job of mixing in your milk and sugar. This method poses less risk of sloshing your tea out of the cup, too, especially if it’s your first formal tea, and you’re a little nervous.
Don’t lick or suck on your spoon.
While some people might try to stick their spoon in their mouth after stirring their tea out of reflex, this is considered rude at an afternoon tea. Instead, sit your teaspoon down on the table on a napkin.
Don’t blow on your tea.
Afternoon tea is a leisurely affair; there isn’t any reason why you should need to be in a hurry to cool it down for drinking. Instead, sit back and enjoy some chat with your friends, and your tea should be cool enough to drink in no time. After all, the conversation is really what afternoon tea is all about.
Eat the food offered in courses.
Like a full meal, afternoon tea starts with savory dishes like cucumber sandwiches or savory finger foods and then moves on to scones and finally to sweets like pastries or cakes for dessert. It is considered bad etiquette to move straight to the sweets without first taking samples from the previous courses.
Don’t pick your saucer up.
You should pick your teacup up on its own, and the saucer for your cup should stay on the table in front of you. The saucer is only there to keep the tea from sloshing over the sides of the teacup and splattering the tablecloth.
Don’t make noises with your mouth at afternoon tea other than talking.
Don’t slurp your tea, don’t smack while you’re eating, and don’t talk with your mouth full or while you’re chewing your food. Most of these bad table manners would be considered rude even at an informal gathering, but they’d be exceptionally rude at a special occasion or a formal afternoon tea.
Pick your teacup up by the handle.
It’s considered rude to pick up a teacup by the bowl, and you’re more likely to drop it since it’s thin porcelain that is likely to be piping hot.
It’s okay to eat with your fingers but use reasonable portions.
Don’t try to cram an entire tea scone in your mouth—instead, pull the scone apart with your fingers and eat the bits. Your mouth should never really be full when you’re eating afternoon tea; you should be “nibbling” your food lightly to remain polite. You shouldn’t give the impression that you’re starving.
Don’t dip anything in your tea.
Americans often dunk cookies into their tea or coffee. Some British people might do it in the comfort of their own homes, but this isn’t considered socially appropriate at a formal afternoon tea.
Follow the guidelines, but enjoy yourself.
Afternoon tea is a lot less formal than it used to be back in the heyday of the British Empire and the Victorian period, but it’s still much more formal than most afternoon snacks. If you keep the above rules of etiquette in mind, you should do fine for your first afternoon tea.
How is Afternoon Tea Different Than Elevenses?
Along with breakfast tea and afternoon tea, there is also a third tea-time in Britain. This tea is known as the elevenses or midday tea, and it is taken at around eleven in the morning.
This tea is usually just an informal break and involves taking the time to sit down, drink a cup of tea, and maybe grab a biscuit. (Source: My Recipes)
Most people don’t eat anything substantial at elevenses since it is so close to lunch.
While afternoon tea in modern Britain is usually only practiced for special occasions, elevenses is indulged in by Brits high and low.
It is so commonplace that it is considered a staple of British life. This habit has also extended to areas that used to be under British rules, such as India.
However, this midday break never did catch on with the Americans, who are content to wait for lunch.
Why Is Tea So Popular in Britain?
So, why do people in Britain drink tea, to begin with?
Tea was introduced to Britain through British trade in the 1650s. Thomas Garraway was the first proprietor noted to serve tea in an English establishment in 1657. (Source: Wiki Tea)
Tea is drunk by the British and people the world over for a variety of reasons:
- The warmth of a mug of tea has been shown to mimic the warmth of human contact, which can help soothe people who are feeling angry, lonely, or touch-starved. Scientific studies have shown that warm drinks can even make people objectively friendlier. This means that tea is good for a person’s mental and emotional health, as well as their physical health.
(Source: The Guardian)
- Tea has many health benefits. Tea has been shown to reduce the risk of both heart attack and stroke, and the polyphenols and antioxidants found in different types of tea have also been linked to the prevention of certain kinds of cancer. (Source: Today) Not only does drinking tea regularly promote good overall health, science has shown that tea drinkers also live longer. (Source: Science Daily)
- Tea contains caffeine. This soft recreational drug helps people stay alert and keeps them mentally focused, especially during tedious or repetitive tasks. However, tea contains less caffeine than the average cup of coffee, which makes it a healthier option. The warmth and caffeine of tea help keep people feeling energetic and fresh.
There are many different reasons why people in Britain might love a good cup of tea (the perpetually gloomy and rainy weather notwithstanding), and they’re the same reasons that tea has become popular across the globe.
Afternoon Tea in Britain is a Wonderful Experience
Even though most people may not experience a formal afternoon tea, this tradition has a longstanding history in the United Kingdom. Britain’s enthusiasm for tea (and its enthusiasm for shipping it to the far corners of the globe) caused tea to gain popularity as the recreational drink of choice for most countries worldwide.
If you ever visit Britain, be sure to check out a tea house and make the time to sit down for a real British afternoon tea. You won’t regret the stop!