Understanding British Tea Culture

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It is widely known that the British love a nice cup of tea. It’s a deeply tea2entrenched part of the national culture, as well as the country’s international reputation. People even have tea-themed tattoos. But for the average American coffee drinker, this can be a hard concept to wrap one’s mind around. Click below for your easy breakdown of the How’s and What’s associated with a proper British cuppa. 

Types of Tea

While there are hundreds of teas available throughout the world, there are several dozen favoured by the British. Here we breakdown the two types of tea an American student living in England is likely to encounter:

English Breakfast tea is as English as it sounds: this is the standard tea you’re likely to encounter. It’s based on a blend of black teas, and is often described with words like “robust” and “full bodied.” It’s designed to go well with a bit of milk. If you ever have a traditional British fry-up (a large breakfast often containing fried eggs, bacon, black sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms and beans), this is the tea you’ll drink with your meal.tea

Earl Grey tea got its name from a former British Prime Minister who happened to particularly enjoy this blend. Its flavour is delicate and slightly citrusy because of the bergamot extract used in its processing, and it is generally not considered to have as strong a flavour as English Breakfast tea. It was once described by Buzzfeed as a “proper middle class tea,” if that helps at all.

How to Make a Brew

There are lots of opinions to be had about the proper way to make a cuppa. In fact, George Orwell wrote an entire essay on the subject in 1946. You can read it here if you’re so inclined. Here are the generally agreed upon steps to making tea:

  • Pour freshly boiled water into a mug containing your chosen type of tea.
  • Steep the tea for approximately three minutes. If you leave it in for too little time the flavour will be so weak, you’ll have hardly made tea at all. If you steep the tea for too long, it can become bitter.
  • Remove the tea bag. Leaving the tea bag in your mug is simply not acceptable.

Here’s where it gets tricky though… There is a large divide in Britain on when to add milk to your tea. It can be added before the hot water, and while some say this creates optimal taste, others would argue that the pale colour this creates is unpalatable. Others prefer to add the milk after removing the tea bag; one of the major arguments for this is that you have better control over exactly how much milk you add this way.

Now, most Brits do not add sugar to their tea. For the tea1American palate, especially one accustomed to consuming caffeine in the form of an over sugared Frappuccino, this can be a bit hard to take. Try your tea without sugar, and then add it if you feel like you need it. Just know that any Brits around you will give you the side eye while you do.

As a case in point, the London Study Centre intern, Jessica, is a former life-long coffee drinker who began drinking tea when she joined our office in August and has never looked back. This reformed latte fanatic has even taken to making her own cuppas at home, although she takes her tea with sugar, so she still has a ways to go.

What is so special about afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea refers to a British tradition of enjoying a pot of tea with a selection of small cakes, scones and sandwiches in the late afternoon. While originally a private social event that occurred within residential spaces, these days you’re most likely to find an afternoon tea in a hotel.

The practice has evolved to become less of a daily ritual and more of a special indulgence, sometimes used to celebrate a particular occasion.


Students enjoy a spot of afternoon tea themselves!

 So there you have it, a breakdown of British tea culture. But don’t just take our word for it – try some for yourself!