Why is tea typical of Great Britain?

Very British - an introduction to British tea culture

If the term “tea” is used in this country, many of us will immediately think of a very specific country - Great Britain. Although no tea is grown on the British Isles, the British are real world champions in tea drinking and have the most famous tea culture in Europe. But what makes British tea culture so special? We want to clarify that in this article.

When did tea come to the UK?

Tea is so firmly anchored in British culture that one might think that the hot drink has been at home on the archipelago since the beginning of time. In fact, tea came to Great Britain relatively late. It was not until the beginning of the 17th century that the infusion was introduced here by the East India Company. At that time, however, tea was not yet a popular drink as we know it today. In the early days it was considered extremely exclusive and, due to its high price, was initially only reserved for the upper class and the nobility.

That changed in 1717, when Thomas Twining opened the very first tea shop in London. Tea was imported en masse from China and became more and more accessible to the lower classes. Until the 1830s, China was Britain's main supplier of tea. Eventually, however, it was superseded by India. A little later, Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, was added.

What are the favorite teas in the UK?

Probably the most popular tea in the UK is black tea. Black teas from India and China are particularly popular. While Assam tea and Darjeeling tea are clearly ahead with Indian teas, smoked tea and teas from the Yunann province are preferred for Chinese teas.

Black tea is drunk either neat or as a mixture. Popular black tea blends are of course the English breakfast tea and also the Irish breakfast tea. Flavored black tea also likes to find its way into the cups here. A real British classic is the Earl Gray tea with its typical bergamot aroma.

Of course, there is also herbal tea and fruit tea in the UK. These types of tea are not called "tea" there, but rather as "herbal infusion" or "fruit infusion". This is because they usually do not contain any components of the tea plant. In contrast to black tea, they are caffeine-free and are therefore mainly drunk by children.

What are the occasions when tea is drunk in Great Britain?

You don't need a special occasion for tea in Great Britain. Tea is an everyday drink that the British accompany throughout the day. However, there are some fixed tea times when the so-called "formal tea" is celebrated. One always speaks of “formal tea” when drinking tea is not just a minor matter, but the focus is really on the tea. According to this definition, drinking a cup of tea while sitting at a desk would not fall under “formal tea”. On the other hand, meeting friends for a cup of tea in the afternoon does.

These tea times are common in the UK


The Elevenses is a kind of second breakfast, which is usually eaten around 11 a.m. in the morning. During this small meal break, you usually drink a cup of black tea and eat some sweet pastries or sandwiches. The Elevenses are a surprisingly young tradition. It is believed that this is an invention from the 20th century.

Afternoon tea

For many, afternoon tea is something like the figurehead for British tea culture. The Afternnon Tea is now world-famous and is now also held outside of Great Britain in many restaurants, cafes and tea houses.

Afternoon Tea takes place in the afternoon, between 3 and 5 p.m. Pastries and other small snacks are served here with tea. Afternoon tea usually begins with sandwiches that can be topped with cucumber, egg, cress, ham or salmon. This is usually followed by scones, which are served with clotted cream and jam. Last but not least, there are cakes, biscuits or other sweet pastries.

High tea

The high tea usually takes place in the early evening hours between 5 and 7 p.m. It often represents a kind of dinner, which is why hearty dishes are served here with tea. Sandwiches, pies or meat and vegetable dishes are typical of high tea. Often this is followed by a sweet dessert.

The tradition of high tea comes from the British working class. Because while the upper class was able to take their tea break in the afternoon, most workers did not find time to do so until the evening hours.

The name high tea comes from the fact that the tea is usually taken while sitting at a high kitchen table. For afternoon tea, on the other hand, people gather around a low tea table or living room table. That is why an alternative name for afternoon tea is also low tea.

Milk, sugar or pure - how do the British drink their tea now?

For some, the sugar bowl and milk jug are a fixed part of every tea time, for others the mere sight of these two utensils is sacrilege. The question of how to drink your tea is as old as British tea culture itself.

A definitive answer to this will probably never be found. But basically there are some types of tea that can be refined better with milk and sugar than others. Strong teas such as Assam tea or the English breakfast tea can be tempered a little mildly. Darjeeling tea, on the other hand, should rather be drunk pure due to its fine aroma or, at most, refined with a little lemon juice.

But since tea enjoyment is ultimately a matter of individuality, one rule always applies before all others - what tastes good is allowed.

In this sense, happy tea time!