For many travelers, tea and Britain are an inseparable pairing. But what exactly is a “cuppa?” How do you choose between blends such as English Breakfast or Irish Breakfast? What is that distinct flavor in Earl Grey? What’s the difference between afternoon and high tea?
We’re breaking it down for you in this brief guide to British tea culture.
Tea arrived in Britain via Portuguese and Dutch traders, who were the first to export it from India and China. Perhaps surprisingly, coffee was the hot drink of choice in England until tea gained popularity in the mid-seventeenth century. Within a few decades, it displaced gin and ale as the favorite drink of the working class.
The government responded by heavily taxing tea, leading to tea smuggling and adulteration. After attempts to curb both of these illicit industries, the government got behind the tea importation business and gave the East India Company a tea trade monopoly. By mid-1800, Britain was thoroughly invested.
Fancy a Cuppa?
While a “cuppa” — short for a cup of tea — is a familiar term that refers to the beverage, you likely won’t come across it unless your host or server is extremely casual. But feel free to try it out during afternoon tea at Thurnham Hall by Diamond Resorts in Lancashire, a restored country house from the 12th Century. Whether you’re staying a week or just a few nights, it’s easy to imagine the historically dramatic days of tea taxation and smuggling at this unique retreat. Resort accommodations include a kettle in each suite’s kitchen (as well as a coffee maker) and a grocery on-site for stocking up on tea.
When you stay with Diamond Resorts at properties such as Pine Lake Resort in Lancashire, you can also have English Breakfast tea delivered to your room — as part of a complete English breakfast Good Morning Pack. English Breakfast is a full-bodied black tea comprising Assam, Ceylon and Kenyan, blended to stand up to milk and sugar. This blend is ideal for the morning and is one of the most popular British teas. It’s counterpart, Irish Breakfast tea, is equally as strong but leans more heavily toward Assam tea leaves in construction.
Another classic English blend is Earl Grey tea, which has a base of black tea. It’s categorized as an infused tea because of the bergamot orange rind that flavors it. Surprisingly, this tea is not originally British. It was likely invented in China, where the tea masters routinely flavored tea with spices, essential oils, flowers and other extracts. Historians believe it’s named for Charles Grey, the second Earl of Grey and Prime Minister of Britain from 1830-1834.
How to Brew
Although tea-brewing customs are no longer formal — for instance, many Brits now use teabags for speed and convenience rather than loose leaf tea — the common consensus on proper tea-making includes warming up the cup or pot first. Pour hot water into it and let it stand for a minute, then dump it out. (More modern teapots, including glass teapots, don’t require this step.)
Always use fresh water in the kettle. Take care not to over-boil the water, as too-high temperatures can scald or burn more delicate white or green teas. Then, steep for three minutes, regardless of leaf or bag. If you’re using a pot, remove the lid to let more oxygen into the tea.
Once three minutes are up, remove the leaves or bag. Don’t reuse a bag, and never wring it out with a spoon back into the pot or cup. Over-brewing and straining tea bags will bring out additional tannins, which make your tea bitter and cause a drying sensation while drinking. Just lift the bag directly out and set it aside.
Historically, if a group were having tea, one person would pour it for the others and add accompaniments of milk and sugar. Pouring is still considered a nicety but not a necessity. If you do wish to pour, note that a “white tea” is made with milk, and that the milk goes into the cup first. Add the sugar afterward.
If you’re making tea in a cup, add the milk after the tea. If you start with it, the tea won’t brew properly.
Note that tea that’s taken as “black” does not refer to variety. As when referring to coffee, it simply means that the tea is taken without milk or sugar.
Distinctions such as “afternoon tea,” a light snack around 4:00 p.m., and “high tea,” a later, more substantial supper, have somewhat disappeared in contemporary society. Now “tea” is anything from a traditional, modest repast to a veritable multicultural feast. The modern interpretations are quite fun, and exploring local cafés and tea houses around England to taste the variations can be an activity all on its own.
For a more classic approach to afternoon tea, settle in at Wychnor Park Country Club, a grand property in Staffordshire that practically demands a Downton Abbey-inspired Instagram post. Taking tea after strolling the picturesque grounds is an ideal way to punctuate the day and refresh yourself before an evening exploring the town.
Eager to explore England and its “Haute tea” culture? Visit DiamondResorts.com today to start booking your U.K. vacation.
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