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Afternoon Tea 1: An Experience in British Tea Service

Author: Norische

Filed in: how-to, ritual, etiquette, service, protocol

Tea: A History

While there are volumes of information about the rich and illustrious tradition of Tea Time in Britain, information of the earliest introduction of tea to England and its associates are quite obscure. From the records of the East India Trading Company, the first appearance of tea as a commodity appears in 1644. Although there are vague records of sailors bringing back packets of tea from China and the Far East as gifts… the first public sale of tea was in 1657.

At first, tea was labeled as literally a cure all. Merchants advertised that this miraculous substance could cure almost any ailment, ranging from dropsy to aiding in reversing the signs of aging. Tea rapidly grew in popularity and by the 1700’s there were over 500 coffee houses serving tea to its patrons throughout London alone. In fact it became so popular that the sale of tea actually became more popular and profitable than the sale of hard liquor. By the 1800’s tea had replaced ale and gin as the beverage of choice for both the well to do, and the common man.

At times tea was valued at almost a month’s wages for a pound of the dried leaves. It was stored in special lock boxes, and the lady of the house was the only one entrusted with the precious key. So precious a commodity in fact that serving tea became a ritual, something to be properly taught and practiced by all of good breading.

There are two specific traditions that are generally discussed when it comes to tea and Britain, High Tea and Afternoon Tea.

High Tea is often mistakenly presumed to be a tea ceremony reserved for the elite class of the upper crust of society. This is a unfortunate misgiving however, High Tea does not in fact refer to an individual’s social standing. The term “High” in High Tea refers to the height of the table at which the tea was served, specifically a dining table instead of the lower tables of a parlor. High Tea was actually a full meal consisting of meats, bread, cakes, and of course plenty of dark rich tea. In the working or agricultural communities of England individuals would come home around dark, normally around six in the evening, and at that time the evening meal would be served, hence the origin or High Tea.

The introduction of Afternoon Tea has been credited to Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford (1783 – 1857), one of Queen Victoria’s ladies – in – waiting. Traditionally, dinner was not served until 8:30 or 9:00 in the evening, even later during the summer months. The Duchess however would often become hungry, and order a light meal of bread and butter, cakes, tarts or biscuits and tea delivered to her boudoir. Thinking that she would be ridiculed or looked down upon by others she kept her ritual a secret for quite a while. When she was indeed exposed not only was she not ridiculed as she had feared but the idea of serving a Afternoon Tea caught on and eventually became a tradition throughout all of England. While such a wonderful and popular tradition cannot be credited to just one woman, there is no doubt that the Duchess will forever go down in history as the first to introduce Afternoon Tea to Britain.

What is Tea?

Tea (Camellia sinensis) is a species of evergreen that grows best in areas where the temperature never gets very high and can only grow where frost is totally absent, this means that tea is best grown in the tropical hills of China, India and Sri Lanka. On tea plantations the plants are kept pruned to no more than two meters in height. The harvest of tea comes from the new growth; generally a worker only plucks the terminal two leaves, since these have the best flavor. While the variety of tea is indeed very large, the majority of teas can be categorized simply as white tea, black tea, green tea and oolong tea. The differences in these teas are merely the means of processing. The leaves are withered indoors for 24 hours, after which the leaves are then rolled and broken or chopped this begins the oxidation of the phenolics within the leaves.

White Tea is not allowed to oxidize at all as the leaves are steamed, rolled and dried immediately.

Green Tea has little oxidization as the leaves are steamed, rolled and dried after picking.

Oolong Tea falls somewhere between Green and Black Tea, because the leaves are only partially oxidized before it is rolled and dried.

Black Tea is allowed to oxidize for two to four hours before processing.

Finally the fermented tea is fired, hence blackened, for 20 minutes to reduce the leaf tissue moisture to 3%. The quality of the tea depends greatly on the local climate, and the processing techniques. The flavor of the tea comes from the essential oil called theol, and the alkaloid theine, which is essentially identical to caffeine.

There are many herbal tea blends that made from the leaves, roots, bark, seeds or flowers of other plants, but most lack the one unique ingredient that has made tea so popular… caffeine.

Choosing A Tea

The Star of an Afternoon Tea is of course the tea, choosing the right tea can make or break any tea party. Westerners prefer black tea, a dark and rich flavor that has spanned centuries and continents. In Britain the more traditional Earl Grey is still quite popular. Earl Grey tea is made from black tea but has the addition of the oil of the Bergamot Orange, which is extracted from the peel of this small pear shaped sour orange from Italy.

Other recommendations that would be suitable would include a light refreshing fruit or mint blend for a hot summers day, during the afternoon Darjeeling is a good choice, and for those cooler times a rich, robust Chai tea would be just the thing to spice up a social get together.

After you have decided on the type of tea you wish to serve here are a few hints before actually buying the tea.

1. Make sure you get fresh tea, the longer the tea has set on the shelf the less robust flavor it will have.

2. Depending on how much of a gourmet your guests will be, most individuals find that loose tea provides a fuller flavor than tea made from bags.

3. Under no circumstance should you ever use instant tea.

4. The best tea is stored in airtight containers, and kept in low light. Tea that has been stored otherwise will have a stale taste to it.

5. If you are choosing a blended tea, make sure that the tea is evenly blended… improperly blended tea can throw off the entire taste and turn a sweet tea rather bitter

6. Make sure your source of tea is quite reputable; you can only guarantee the quality of the tea if you use a reputable source.

7. You get what you pay for, while discount stores may save you money this is not the area you want to save. The tea is the focus of this social hence one must be willing to pay for quality.

Making The Perfect Pot Of Tea

Run the cold water from the tap for at least one minute, to clear out the pipes and aerate the water. If you live in an area that has heavily treated water, you may wish to use bottled water. If you do indeed use bottled water be sure to shake the bottle to oxygenate the water or your water will have a stale or lifeless taste to it. It is the oxygen in the water that opens the leaf for full flavor extraction.

Make sure to boil the water in a teakettle, specifically either porcelain or glass. A metal teapot can add a metallic flavor to the tea, and it will cause the water to cool more rapidly. Bring the water to a boil (185 degrees).

Once the water is brought to a boil pour a small amount of the hot water into the teapot to warm to the pot, once the water begins to cool pour out the initial water. Pour the hot water into the teapot and add one bag or one teaspoon (2 grams) of leaves per cup, plus an additional teaspoon or bag ‘for the pot’. Allow the tea to steep for 3 to 7 minutes depending on the type of tea you have selected; the longer the tea is given the stronger the tea will become, do not exceed 7 minutes or the tea may become bitter.

Black tea: 3 – 5 minutes

White tea: 2 – 4 minutes

Green tea: 2 – 5 minutes

Oolong tea: 4 –7 minutes

Once the waiting is done you are now prepared to serve the tea. Stir the tea once before pouring. Using a tea strainer pour the tea into the waiting cups. Pour a small amount in each cup and move onto the next, then continue this process until the tea comes to approximately one inch from the lip of all the teacups. By doing this you make sure that all cups have the same strength of tea and that no one is left with an overly strong cup of tea. After the first pot is drained fresh hot water may be added to the leaves and a second pot made, most tea leaves may be used for a total of three pots of tea… without risking the rich flavor of the tea. After the final pot is served discard the leaves and rinse the pot immediately. Allowing the pot to sit with the leaves or remaining tea in it may damage the finish or stain the pot.

Now that you have an understanding of tea in itself, lets move on to the actual serving and formal behaviors associated with Afternoon Tea. Please look for Afternoon Tea II: What to serve and how to serve it.

As with everything this is my opinion, take what you will and leave the rest. If you wish to contact me, my email address is If you wish to see more of my work you may find a complete listing of all my writings at…. in the files section.

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