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What Is High Tea vs Afternoon Tea?

To put it straight and simply, most people misunderstand the British term “high tea”. They mistakenly refer to afternoon tea as high tea, because, admit it, high tea sounds lofty and regal.  So, what is high tea then, if it’s not the posh British tradition?

High tea was the evening meal for the industrial working class during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Served about 6 pm after arriving home from a hard day’s work, this meal consisted of a cup of tea, along with bread, cheese, vegetables, and meat.  

Nowadays in the UK, if someone says he wants his “tea”, it probably just means that he wants to eat dinner!

If this seems confusing and counter-intuitive, you’re not alone.  Read on to discover all about high tea and to find out why it’s so often confused with the more fancy afternoon tea.

What Is British High Tea?

When high tea originated,  it was essentially a “meal” that was meant to serve as a supper for the working-class. So, it can be said that it was less posh and less refined. The working class in Britain, at that time, had two meals a day; a breakfast, and an early supper.

When Did High Tea Start?

We can track high tea in British culture to as early as the 18th century. Who Invented High Tea?

Actually, we can’t trace any particular person who can be credited for the introduction of high tea. It was just the need of the time for the working class. However, it is commonly believed that high tea was the middle-to-lower-class version of the afternoon tea, which was mostly limited to the elite and royal classes.

The introduction of afternoon tea, however, is credited to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840.

At that time, in the elite class, there was a long gap between lunch and dinner with dinner being served late at 8 in the evening. The Duchess would become hungry at around mid-afternoon or 3-4 o’clock and would get to tea with light snacks.

Can you detect the oddity?

It can be said that Anna borrowed the concept of afternoon tea from the lower working class. I say that because high tea was common among the working class in the 18th century and the royals didn’t get their afternoon tea until the mid 19th century, so who got the lead?

What Was Served at High Tea?

Since high tea was a proper working class meal during the 18th and 19th centuries it consisted of hearty foods like meats, pickles, bread, butter, cheese, and tea.

What Is The Menu For High Tea?

As high tea was basically an evening meal, the emphasis was on simple, filling foods and hearty dishes.  Common foods for this main meal of the day were:  

  • Cold meats, steaks, and meat pie
  • Vegetables
  • Pickled fish
  • Potatoes 
  • Salads
  • Bread or crackers with butter
  • Teacakes
  • Fruitcakes
  • Tea

If you include bread in any form, you can have sandwiches or simply bread and butter. Plus, you can have ham or cheese and possibly hard-boiled eggs.

Salad finds its place, but it does not have to be complicated or fancy. A bowl of sliced cucumber, some tomatoes, and some lettuce will do. You can have sweet things too such as jam to go on bread and cakes.

There are no courses in high tea, so all of this has to be on the table from the outset. To drink, there is always hot tea. However, it should be a lighter tea.

high tea menu

How Did High Tea Get Its Name?

Most of the time, high tea, in the 1700s, was served at a high table with high-back chairs and this is from where it got its name “high tea”.  This was in direct contrast to the more posh afternoon tea that was served while sitting in low sofas and cushy chairs. 

When Is High Tea Served?

Traditionally, high tea was served between 5 and 7 o’clock in the evening, after the working classes returned home hungry from a long day at work. 

Is High Tea Still Practiced?

Nowadays, high tea, in its original sense, is a term that is being used less and less because of changing customs. Most of Britain now has three proper meal in the form of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Britain’s rich tea culture is alive by continuing the more proper afternoon tea tradition. 

So, there is no high tea in its true sense, but you would find them referring to essentially the same thing as dinner or supper. 

In fact, now, many British hotels and tea rooms, just like the States, use afternoon tea and high tea interchangeably to refer to the traditional English afternoon tea.

High Tea Vs. Afternoon Tea

If you are invited to an afternoon tea, believe me, the last thing you would want to do would be to mistake it for a high tea. I say this because they are two different terms with different foods to be served and what is expected of you with regard to etiquette.

High tea is definitely not the same as afternoon tea.  Afternoon tea is the more formal version, and probably what most people think of when they mistakenly say “high tea”.  This more formal type of tea was served to the upper classes on special occasions.

Afternoon tea also referred to as “low tea”, is typically served in the mid-afternoon around low tables.

Traditional Afternoon Tea Food Courses

  • Finger sandwiches (such as classic cucumber sandwiches)
  • Scones with clotted cream, butter, and fresh preserves
  • Small pastries or tea cakes like a Victoria sponge cake
  • Cookies
  • Fresh cut fruit
  • A selection of teas

To follow proper etiquette, a traditional afternoon tea should include three courses, in a particular order.

  1. First Course of Tea Sandwiches and Savory Snacks
  2. Second Course of Classic Scones
  3. Third Course of Sweet Treats

The following is a summary of the three courses. Click on the links above if you want more information about each course.

What Sandwiches Are Served on an Afternoon Tea Menu?

At a more formal afternoon tea, you might find a variety of finger sandwiches and savory bites usually served on white bread:

  • Ham and tomato with butter sandwich
  • Cream cheese and cucumber sandwich
  • Egg salad and cress sandwich
  • Smoked salmon sandwich
  • French jambon beurre sandwich with cornichons
  • Roast beef sandwich with dijon mustard
  • Coronation chicken sandwich
  • Curry chicken salad with mango chutney 

What is served during the Scones Course?

The scones course if the simplest course especially if you’re planning tea parties of your own. This course is all about scones and various toppings.

  • Fresh scones
  • Clotted cream
  • Butter
  • Preserves and jam
  • Homemade lemon curd

What is served during the Sweets Course?

The final course of any afternoon tea is always the sweetest. This course should consist of several sweet treats:

  • Pastries
  • Cookies
  • Fruit tarts
  • Homemade cake like iced tiered cake and pound cake
  • Cupcakes
  • Fresh cut fruit

What Types of Tea are Served at Afternoon Tea?

There are always a wide variety of teas available at afternoon tea:

  • Classic black teas like English breakfast
  • Herbal teas
  • Earl Grey
  • Green tea
  • Iced tea

As you can see, it is little tidbits and finger foods and definitely not a heavy meal. Low tea gets its name from the tradition that it was created to be enjoyed at a low table such as a coffee table, with guests seated in low-slung armchairs.

Initially, afternoon tea was mostly limited to upper-class ladies in the drawing room, so the emphasis was on proper etiquette, rules, and dress. It can be said that afternoon tea is a more formal tea. This is where you get your fancy China out with cups and saucers.

High tea, on the other hand, is where you bring your appetite. It is a substantial meal rather than formal afternoon tea. High tea is served in the early evening, as opposed to low tea which is served around the mid-afternoon.

Foods served in high tea are heartier as opposed to lighter foods in afternoon tea. In this, you can serve tea even in a mug made from tea bags.

high tea vs afternoon tea sandwiches

What is High Tea Attire?

So this is a bit of a trick question….true high tea attire would be whatever an industrial era working person arrived home from work in – basically their everyday work clothes.  Actually, it might be kind of fun to have a get together in coveralls, work shirts, and overalls! Maybe I’ll plan to do that for my next tea gathering.

Afternoon tea attire is quite a different thing entirely.  Your attire depends on where you are going for tea. It is generally an informal event, but people view it as an opportunity to dress up.

Afternoon Tea Attire for Men

If you are in Britain and invited to a high-end place like Ritz or The Randolph Hotel in Oxford, it is better to dress smart. For such places, you could wear a full suit and tie and you still won’t feel out of place. There should certainly be no denim, sneakers, or baseball caps.

In all but the most formal places, a man could get by wearing a pair of trousers, a collared shirt, and dress shoes.

Afternoon Tea Attire for Women

Women can go with a dress or a skirt,  business casual or something more modern, but it should be tasteful and not revealing. Just like the men, women shouldn’t wear sneakers to afternoon tea.

Modern Afternoon Tea Time

If you’re planning a visit to the United Kingdom, there are many posh hotels that offer a traditional afternoon tea. The Rubens Hotel features an afternoon tea overlooking Buckingham Palace. How traditional is that?

Can’t get a reservation there, check out these favorite London spots for high tea time.

What is a Cream Tea?

A cream tea is slimmed down version of afternoon tea, consisting of tea, warm scones, clotted cream, jam, homemade lemon curd, and sometimes butter. This light afternoon tea is available in the dining room of upscale hotels throughout the United Kingdom.

What is a Royal Tea?

Similar to the more formal traditional afternoon tea, a royal tea includes champagne, so it often costs more than a standard tea.

The Takeaway:  British High Tea

While often confused with British afternoon tea, high tea was actually a traditional supper-type meal served for industrial workers of the 18th and 19th centuries.   

These factory workers punched the clock every day and would come home to a hearty but simple meal designed to fill them up and give them energy for their next workday.  

If you’d like to plan your own afternoon tea party, take a look at this post on afternoon tea ideas and afternoon tea recipes for inspiration!

If you love tea as much as I do, pin this to your favorite tea-loving Pinterest board and pass it on for others to enjoy! Pinkies up!

high tea attire