The Sacred Art of English Tea

No one can claim to be British, or Victorian, or Posh, without at least pretending to understand about tea. This is more difficult than most guess, however, especially for Americans. But if you’re truly going to bring back the glamour and elegance of the Victorian era into this new Steampunk world we’ve created then you have to include a ritual that was essential to the Victorians, given that it was invented by Queen Victoria herself.

History of Teatime

Tea TimeIn the world of the aristocracy, parties were a regular occurrence, and ran well into the wee hours of the morning. Dinner was typically not partaken of until eight o’clock. Children were fed a light dinner and sent to bed, and then the adults attended parties, operas, and social gatherings where sometimes the actual serving of food would occur as late as midnight. This was to give flexibility to those who arrived late, and yet ensure that all guests would be present before eating. The Queen discovered that waiting from a noon luncheon to an eight o’clock dinner was too long to go without food, and found herself growing faint around four o’clock. She therefore was in the habit of partaking of a light snack at that hour–a practice that was quickly adopted by the upper class everywhere for very practical reasons.

This being England, of course there was tea.

Teatime taking place at four o’clock became the standard everywhere among the upper class, and quickly became a ritualized event. Where the lower class simply drank tea as an alternative to dirty water and ate their meals in a more “normal” fashion, the upper class served it out of porcelain tea pots and added sugar cubes, light sandwiches, cookies and pastries. These formal “Tea Parties” remain popular in the imagination of Americans who’s children play with tiny tea sets, and elegant tea rooms are fairly popular. Tea parties are a popular theme for Christmastime, and an excuse for women and girls to gather and gossip. But while much of the accoutrements remain the same, misunderstanding of the era and the beverage itself has led to a great deal of it being lost, most particularly the art of brewing tea.

Tea and the Science Fiction Writers

American stereotypes of a typical author invariably include an incurable coffee addiction. Long nights spent bleeding over the keyboard cannot be accomplished without a steady source of caffeine, and to Americans, drinking coffee is a sign of rebellion, and rebellion is the heart and soul of this country. If you are not American, however, your beverage choices become more varied, and I think you find a lot of British authors actually have tea running through their veins instead of blood.

As authors, of course, they travel quite a bit, to other countries, specifically America, where they get asked about their strange tea-drinking habits. This has led several prominent science fiction authors to write essays expounding upon tea, the proper making thereof, and all the ways that people get it wrong. Rather than attempt to explain to you the proper way of making a good cup of tea, I’ll let them do a much better job of it.

George Orwell TeaFirst of all is George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm. He wrote an essay called “A Nice Cup of Tea” which was published in 1946 in the London Evening Standard. (The English take their tea so seriously they write about it in the newspapers.) He holds his method to be the only true method and lists 11 points for making good tea. This essay is so important that it warrants it’s own Wikipedia entry.

Next up is the less stuffy and therefore more generally popular overview by comedy SF writer Douglas Adams. Adams is a man who needs no introduction, but in case you’ve forgotten, he wrote the enduring and unmatchable Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He also wrote a piece on tea, fifty-four years later and, as you might expect from someone who wrote about torpedoes being transformed into petunias, he’s much more lax in his rules. He does not have a wikipedia entry about his essay, but it was published in The Salmon of Doubt in 2002, a year after his death. Since then copies have circulated throughout the internet, and countless beverage geeks have followed his instructions with more than satisfactory results.

Does this mean that George Orwell was incorrect? I think that both methods are equally viable, and which you prefer depends on how stuffily British you really are.

Tea Party Rituals

So now that you know how to make a proper cup of tea, you can probably guess how that translates to making a proper pot of tea. The tea must be brewed in the pot, not just a pot of hot water brought to the table to cool down and produce weak, tepid drinks. The pot must be pre-warmed for the same reason.

Proper cup of teaIn a small gathering, the pot of tea along with the bowls of sugar and cream, are brought to the table by the host, or hostess. If there is no clearly defined host then one of those present offers to “be mother” and pour the tea. Each guest holds up their teacup and saucer, and the host pours the tea. While modern gatherings usually allow their guests to pour their own cream and sugar, traditionally these are placed in the cup first, with the host asking :”Do you prefer one lump, or two?” Teacups also include a delicate teaspoon with which to stir the tea before sipping it. Rather than lifting the teacup with both hands, leaving the saucer on the table, the saucer is lifted in the left hand, and the right lifts the teacup, sometimes merely tilting rather than removing it entirely from the saucer. It is the job of the host or hostess to make sure all the guests teacups remain filled. If a guest desires no more tea, they traditionally turn their cup upside down on the saucer to indicate that they are satisfied without the awkwardness of having to refuse a refill.

The practice of drinking tea has varied from country to culture to time period as it moved from practical to merely socially correct, and back into the realm of practical. One does not need to throw a tea party or observe these rituals in order to enjoy a decent cuppa. During the industrial revolution clean drinking water was difficult to come by, and all water had to be boiled before consumption. Tea was often added to the water since it was being boiled anyway, and helped to obscure the foul taste. As clean drinking water became available to the majority of the western population this fell out of practice, although relics of it can still be seen in England where “tea” is a synonym for “dinner.”

Kinds of Tea

So now you know how to make a good cup of tea, and you even know how to serve it in a stuffy, British fashion. So you go to the supermarket to buy some, and in true American fashion, you’re faced with an impossible number of choices. How do you know what to get?

Traditionally, tea is tea. It’s a plant that’s grown, harvested, oxidized, dried, packaged, and sold. “Tea” in the true sense of the word is always black tea. A tea connoisseur can argue over brands of tea, locations for growing tea, but at the end of the day tea was always the same basic black-colored leaves, dried up and sold as a coveted beverage.


Like any company, however, tea companies always advertise new blends and flavours that make their tea superior to competitors, and over the years those have emerged as distinct types that are now copied amongst modern tea companies. Here is a run down of some of the most common.

Earl Grey tea has existed in some form since the early 1800’s, although it didn’t get an official name until the end of the century. Earl Grey tea is regular black tea that has been infused with bergamot oil. A bergamot is a strange sort of citrus fruit, so this type of tea is often advertised as “having a citrus flavor” although in this case “citrus” does not mean “lemons and oranges.” Earl Grey is one of the most popular kinds of British tea, but many find it too strong and don’t prefer it.

English Breakfast Tea is the kind of tea you’re most likely to get if you walk into a tea room and simply request “tea.” It is a tea blend, but it doesn’t include any additional flavorings, since it’s just a blend of teas grown in different areas. An average tea drinker won’t notice much difference between this blend and other blends, but a more discerning palate would describe the differences using words like “full,” “rich,” and “robust.” Tea drinkers, like wine tasters, can be a strange incomprehensible breed. If you’re unsure what to get and want to go with whatever “normal” tea is, then English Breakfast is the choice to make.

Green Tea is tea that has not undergone the oxidation process that makes black tea black. Green tea is green, and tends to make a thinner, lighter tea. Green tea is popular among health food advocates and new age tea drinkers and has a distinctly “green” taste about it. It is inadvisable to serve green tea under the guise of a British tea party.

White Tea is baby tea. It is processed like green tea, but harvested at a young age when the leaves are still tender and white in color. While scholars disagree on when it began production, it seems to be a fairly modern kind of tea and may have gained a surge in popularity due to the health properties. White tea contains a high number of antioxidants and is therefore highly recommended among those who specialize in alternative medicine. Health benefits, however, is rarely a consideration when choosing a good tasting beverage so white tea, like green, is inadvisable tea party fare.


Woman drinking teaTea drinking and tea history is a long and complicated affair. There is enough to write a book about it, and several people have done so. My goal here was to give an overview, and hopefully pique your curiosity enough that you explore the subject further. There is also a great deal of controversy on the subject and while I am a tea enthusiast I am far from a tea expert and make no claims of having the final and correct information.

What is your experience with this ancient and delightful beverage? What traditions do you observe, and which ones should be thrown to the wolves of history? And, perhaps most importantly, do you agree with George Orwell about sugar?

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2 Responses to “The Sacred Art of English Tea

  • In addition, if you are wondering about herbal “tea” coming from chamomile, jasmine, hibiscus, and others, these are referred to as tisanes and were more often applied as medicine than given the place of ritual honor reserved for true tea.

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