A guide to British Tea drinking etiquette for Americans and other foreigners…


Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Two years service with the British Council in Botswana taught me a thing or two about tea drinking. It’s only when you go away from Britain that you appreciate some of the finer points of tea drinking habits and etiquette…
I was brought up on tea. My father brought a cup into my bedroom every morning and I would sit drinking and reading before going to school. I have kept the habit up all my life and that first cup in the morning is the best. Gradually waking up and savouring a half hour in bed reading a book and listening to the dawn chorus. The tea of the moment is black china and I have started to drink it without milk on some vague health kick that reckons that dairy products are not so good. In the afternoons sometimes I treat myself to a some fairtrade blend of Africa and India tea which taste so good with milk.
A survey in the paper this morning said that the one thing most British pack to take abroad on holiday is tea, followed closely by kettles. Yes, it is a national pastime but I feel it is a slight pity that the British don’t take the quality of the tea that they drink more seriously. Many are content to drink any old tea bag and to leave it to stew in a cup instead of using a warmed pot and fresh leaves as one should. After all making a pot is all part of the ritual as the Japanese would tell us. I have written a lot about tea (do explore my other writings!) and I am always amazed sometimes at the poor quality of a cuppa that is often served. I feel it is my duty to keep my eye on the world to make sure that standards are adhered to.

My other favourite at the moment is red bush learnt from Botswana days and made very desirable by reading the set of novels by Alexander McCall-Smith about the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Drinking the red bush takes me back those carefree days Botswana under the warm sun and dusty atmosphere of Bobonong village where I worked as a physics teacher in a secondary school. We were recruited by the British Council to bulk out the numbers of teachers in the Botswana schools. There were teachers from all round the world; India, Mauritius, Ireland, Canada and American Peace Corps.
The Americal Peace Corps could never quite understand our addiction to tea. They would call round and I would say – “Would you like a cup of tea?” “No, thanks” was the answer. But I taught them that it was not so much a matter of refreshement but more a polite way of discussing what we were going to do that day. Over the ritual of boiling some water and making the tea we could exchange pleasantries before getting down to business. Important questions like – “milk first?” and “sugar – one or two?” had to be answered. These things are important so after a while they would understand and indulged me by drinking tea whenever they called round. Another polite thing is to remember how your friends take their tea. I keep a secret book that I write down – things like ‘Fred – strong, with milk and one sugar’ so I can impress them by producing the perfect cup. Afterall there is nothing more annoying than being presented with a white cup if tea if you take it black!


7 Responses

  1. Thank you for this guide about British tea-drinking etiquette – especially the part about your secret guide. That is really the essence of being a wonderful tea host; to prepare the perfect cup, just the way someone likes it, without the guest even needing to utter a word.

    And it’s true about the social-bonding aspect of tea. I’m Canadian, but have lived also in the UK and the USA. Canada falls about midway between the two countries in terms of tea enthusiasm, but I’ve always loved the communal nature of the teapot. Coffee just doesn’t have that same “come-together” vibe!

  2. Many thanks for your comments. Its good to hear from other tea lovers. I like that phrase – ‘the communal nature of the teapot’!

  3. I’m not sure how I came to drink tea – after all, I’m a life-long American- but it’s my beverage of choice in the afternoon. Mornings are dedicated to coffee. And I was so pleased to see your mention of the red tea in the McCall Smith novels. I had no idea what red tea was when I first read about it, but I promplty researched and bought some. I’m afraid I’m not with Mma Ramotswe on this issue, but it does make an interesting iced tea. Yes, I’m afraid in our summer climate (high 90’s F all summer and often 100 or more) iced is the way to go.
    Happy travels.

  4. mmm I hadn’t thought of creating iced tea – I might try it out in the hot weather.

  5. Tea is as much social as it is healthy. Nothing beats drinking tea and talking.

  6. Hear hear. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Although I lived in a house in the Netehrlands with my Dutch father and Swedish mother, we always have been drinking a lot of tea: in the morning, during the day and in the evening! We always took milk in the tea, for we made it very strong. If we had visitors, my mother poured the tea for everyone, but also added milk to eat cup out of habit! We had a lot of laughs on that 🙂 Thank you so much for the very nice post!

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