Tea in the United Kingdom

Teapot, milk jug and a teacup full of tea with milk

Since the 18th Century the United Kingdom has been one of the world's greatest tea consumers, with an average per capita tea supply of 1.9 kg (4.18 lbs) per year.[1] The British Empire was instrumental in spreading tea from China to India; British interests controlled tea production in the subcontinent. Tea, which was an upper-class drink in Europe, became the infusion of every class in Great Britain in the course of the 18th century and has remained so. Tea is a prominent feature of British culture and society.[2]

In the United Kingdom, the drinking of tea is so varied that it is quite hard to generalise. While it is usually served with milk, it is not uncommon to drink it black or with lemon, with sugar being a popular addition to any of the above. Strong tea, served in a mug with milk and sugar, is a popular combination known as builder's tea.


Early mentions

The first record of tea written in English came from English merchants abroad. In 1615, Richard Wickham, who ran an East India Company office in Japan, wrote in a letter to merchants in Macao requesting that they bring him "a pot of the best sort of chaw". Peter Mundy, a traveller and merchant who came across tea in Fujian, China in 1637, wrote, "chaa — only water with a kind of herb boyled in it ".[3]

Green tea exported from China was first introduced in the coffeehouses of London shortly before the Stuart Restoration (1660); in 1657, tea was offered as an item in a London coffeehouse in Exchange Alley.[4] The owner Thomas Garraway had to explain the new beverage in a pamphlet, and an advertisement in Mercurius Politicus for 30 September 1658 offered "That Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, ...sold at the Sultaness-head, ye Cophee-house in Sweetings-Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London". [5] In London "Coffee, chocolate and a kind of drink called tee" were "sold in almost every street in 1659", according to Thomas Rugge's Diurnall.[6] Tea was mainly consumed by upper and mercantile classes: Samuel Pepys, curious for every novelty, tasted the new drink in 1660 and recorded the experience in his diary: [25 September] "I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I had never had drunk before". That same year, two pounds, two ounces of tea bought from Portugal were formally presented to Charles II by the British East India Company.[7] Some years later, in 1667, Pepys noted that his wife was taking tea on medical advice – "a drink which Mr Pelling the Pottecary tells her is good for her colds and defluxions". The Royal College of Physicians debated whether any of the exotic new hot drinks would "agree with the Constitutions of our English bodies".[8]

The earliest English equipages for making tea date to the 1660s. Small porcelain tea bowls were used by the fashionable; they were occasionally shipped with the tea itself. Tea-drinking spurred the search for a European imitation of Chinese porcelain, first successfully produced in England at the Chelsea porcelain manufactory, established around 1743-45 and quickly imitated. See tea set.

Stuarts and Georgians

An English tea caddy, a box to store loose tea leaves

In 1662, Princess Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea, which had already become common in Europe. As tea was her temperance drink of choice, it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy. Catherine of Braganza's choice of tea was also instrumental in the popularization of tea in Britain. Because tea was introduced primarily through male-frequented coffee houses, there would have been far less social acceptability for women to drink this beverage had it not been for her example. Catherine of Braganza's use of tea as a court beverage, rather than a medicinal drink, influenced its popularity in literary circles around 1685.[9]

The British East India company made its first order for the importation of tea in 1667 to their agent in Bantam, and two canisters of tea weighing 143 lbs 8 oz arrived from Bantam in 1669.[10] In 1672, a servant of Baron Herbert in London sent his instructions for tea making, and warming the delicate cups, to Shropshire;

"The directions for the tea are: a quart of spring water just boiled, to which put a spoonful of tea, and sweeten to the palate with candy sugar. As soon as the tea and sugar are in, the steam must be kept in as much as may be, and let it lie half or quarter of an hour in the heat of the fire but not boil. The little cups must be held over the steam before the liquid be put in."[11]

Black tea overtook green tea in popularity in the 1720s when sugar and milk were added to tea, a practice that was not done in China. The growth in the import of tea parallels that of sugar in the 18th century.[12] Between 1720 and 1750 the imports of tea to Britain through the British East India Company more than quadrupled.[13] Fernand Braudel queried, "is it true to say the new drink replaced gin in England?"[14] By 1766, exports from Canton stood at six million pounds on British boats, compared with 4.5 on Dutch ships, 2.4 on Swedish, 2.1 on French.[15] Veritable "tea fleets" grew up. Tea was particularly interesting to the Atlantic world not only because it was easy to cultivate but also because of how easy it was to prepare and its ability to revive the spirits and cure mild colds.[16]

Thomas Twining opened the first known tea shop in 1706, which still remains at 216 Strand, London. In 1787, the company created its logo, still in use today, which is thought to be the world's oldest commercial logo that has been in continuous use since its inception.[17] Under Associated British Foods since 1964, Stephen Twining now represents the company's tenth generation. In 2006, Twinings celebrated its 300th anniversary with a special tea and associated tea caddies. Twining's is a Royal Warrant holder (appointed by HM The Queen).

Victorian and later

Some scholars suggest that tea played a role in British Industrial Revolution. Afternoon tea possibly became a way to increase the number of hours labourers could work in factories; the stimulants in the tea, accompanied by sugary snacks would give workers energy to finish the day's work. Further, tea helped alleviate some of the consequences of the urbanization that accompanied the industrial revolution: drinking tea required boiling the water, thereby killing water-borne diseases like dysentery, cholera, and typhoid.[18]

The popularity of tea occasioned the furtive export of slips, a small shoot for planting or twig for grafting to tea plants, from China to British India and its commercial cultivation there, beginning in 1840.

Between 1872 and 1884 the supply of tea to the British Empire increased with the expansion of the railway to the east. The demand, however, was not proportional, which caused the prices to rise. Nevertheless, from 1884 onward, due to innovation in tea preparation, the price of tea dropped and remained relatively low throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Soon afterwards London became the centre of the international tea trade.[19] With high tea imports also came a large increase in the demand for porcelain. The demand for tea cups, pots and dishes increased to go along with this popular new drink.[20]

Roger Fulford argues that tea rooms benefitted women in the Victorian era, in that these neutral public spaces were instrumental in the "spread of independence" for women and their struggle for the vote.[21] Paul Chrystal characterises tea rooms as "popular and fashionable, especially with women", providing the a dignified and safe place to meet and eat - and strategise on political campaigns.[22]

British-style tea

In the mid-18th century, tea still had exotic connotations: salt-glazed stoneware teapot, Staffordshire, ca.1750 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Brewing the tea

Even very slightly formal events can be a cause for cups and saucers to be used instead of mugs. A typical semi-formal British tea ritual might run as follows (the host performing all actions unless noted):[23]

  1. The kettle is brought to a rolling boil (with fresh water to ensure good oxygenation which is essential for proper diffusion of the tea leaves).[24]
  2. Enough boiling water is swirled around the teapot to warm it and then poured out.
  3. Add loose tea leaves (usually black tea) or tea bags, always added before the boiled water.
  4. Fresh boiling water is poured over the tea in the pot and allowed to brew for 2 to 5 minutes while a tea cosy may be placed on the pot to keep the tea warm.[25]
  5. A tea strainer is placed over the top of the cup and the tea poured in, unless tea bags are used. Tea bags may be removed, if desired, once desired strength is attained.
  6. Fresh milk and white sugar are added, usually by the guest. Most people have milk with their tea, many without sugar.
  7. The pot will normally hold enough tea so as not to be empty after filling the cups of all the guests. If this is the case, the tea cosy is replaced after everyone has been served. Hot water may be provided in a separate pot, and is used only for topping up the pot, never the cup.

The question of milk

"By putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is likely to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round"

—One of Orwell's eleven rules for making tea from his essay "A Nice Cup of Tea", appearing in the London Evening Standard, 12 January 1946.[26]

Whether to put milk into the cup before or after the tea has been a matter of debate since at least the mid-20th century; in his 1946 essay "A Nice Cup of Tea", author George Orwell wrote, "tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country and causes violent disputes over how it should be made".[27] Whether to put tea in the cup first and add the milk after, or the other way around, has split public opinion, with Orwell stating, "indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject".[27]

Another aspect of the debate are claims that adding milk at the different times alters the flavour of the tea (for instance, see ISO 3103 and the Royal Society of Chemistry's "How to make a Perfect Cup of Tea".[28]) Some studies suggest that the heating of milk above 75 degrees Celsius (adding milk after the tea is poured, not before) does cause denaturation of the lactalbumin and lactoglobulin.[29] Other studies argue brewing time has a greater importance.[30] Regardless, when milk is added to tea, it may affect the flavour. In addition to considerations of flavour, the order of these steps is thought to have been, historically, an indication of class. Only those wealthy enough to afford good-quality porcelain would be confident of its being able to cope with being exposed to boiling water unadulterated with milk.[31]

A further point of discussion on when to add milk is how it affects the time taken for the liquid to reach a drinkable temperature. While adding milk first will cause an initial drop in temperature which leads to a more shallow cooling curve (thus slower cooling) while also increasing volume (which would slightly increase the surface area through which the tea could lose heat), one study noted that adding milk first leads to the tea retaining heat out of all proportion with these effects. The major mechanism by which hot tea cools is not conduction or radiation but evaporative loss which is affected by the physical properties of the milk.[footnote 1] The study concluded that lipids in milk prevent water evaporating so rapidly thus retaining heat longer.[footnote 2]

Drinking etiquette

There are opinions as to the proper manner in which to drink tea when using a cup and saucer.[32] Historically, during the 1770s and 1780s, it was fashionable to drink tea from saucers. Saucers were deeper than is the current fashion and so more similar to bowls like their Chinese antecedents.[33] If one is seated at a table, the proper manner to drink tea is to raise the teacup only, placing it back into the saucer in between sips. When standing or sitting in a chair without a table, one holds the tea saucer with the off hand and the tea cup in the dominant hand. When not in use, the tea cup is placed back in the tea saucer and held in one's lap or at waist height. In either event, the tea cup should never be held or waved in the air. Fingers should be curled inwards, no finger should extend away from the handle of the cup.[23]

Tea as a break

British workers have the right in law to a minimum of a 20-minute break in a shift of six hours; government guidelines describe this as " a tea or lunch break".[34] More informally, this is known as elevenses, i.e. a couple of hours before the mid-day meal, traditionally served at 1pm.

When the British have a "cuppa" (a cup of tea), there is usually a biscuit nearby. Dunking biscuits in tea is a custom that was exported around the globe.[35] McVitie's biscuits are the most popular biscuits in the UK to "dunk" in tea, with McVitie's chocolate digestives, Rich tea and Hobnobs ranked the nation's top three favourite biscuits in 2009.[36]

Builder's tea in a mug is typical of a quick break in the working day.

Tea as a meal

Main article: Tea (meal)

Tea is not only the name of the beverage, but of a light meal. Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford is credited with its creation circa 1840, to ward off hunger between luncheon and dinner, as the latter was being served later and later. The tradition continues to this day in tea rooms in the UK. While these establishments have declined in popularity since World War II, there are still many to be found in the countryside. In the West Country, cream teas are a speciality: scones, clotted cream, and jam accompany the drink. Afternoon tea, in contemporary British usage, usually indicates a special occasion, perhaps in a hotel dining room, with savoury snacks (tea sandwiches) as well as small sweet pastries.

A social event to enjoy tea together, usually in a private home, is a tea party.

"Tea" (sometimes "high tea") can also mean the savoury, hot early evening meal. This usage is common in working class British English and in Northern England. See Tea as the evening meal.

Tea cards

In the United Kingdom a number of varieties of loose tea sold in packets from the 1940s to the 1980s contained tea cards. These were illustrated cards roughly the same size as cigarette cards and intended to be collected by children. Perhaps the best known were Typhoo tea and Brooke Bond (manufacturer of PG Tips), the latter of whom also provided albums for collectors to keep their cards in. The brand named Brooke Bond Dividend D, that is, the card was a dividend ("divvy") against the cost of the tea.

Some renowned artists were commissioned to illustrate the cards, including Charles Tunnicliffe. Many of these card collections are now valuable collectors' items.

A related phenomenon arose in the early 1990s when PG Tips released a series of tea-based pogs, with pictures of cups of tea and chimpanzees on them. Tetley's tea released competing pogs but never matched the popularity of the PG Tips variety.

Tea today

Tea with milk that has not yet been stirred

In 2003, DataMonitor reported that regular tea drinking in the United Kingdom was on the decline.[37] There was a 10.25 percent decline in the purchase of normal teabags in Britain between 1997 and 2002.[37] Sales of ground coffee also fell during the same period.[37] Britons were instead drinking health-oriented beverages like fruit or herbal teas, consumption of which increased 50 percent from 1997 to 2002. A further, unexpected, statistic is that the sales of decaffeinated tea and coffee fell even faster during this period than the sale of the more common varieties.[37] Declining tea sales were matched by an increase in espresso sales.[38]

See also






  1. Water molecules whose temperature is far above the average temperature of the tea escape and it is only these above average temperature molecules that have sufficient energy to escape the surface of the tea. As the tea's temperature drops the rate of evaporation, and thus rate of heat loss by evaporation, also drops and evaporative loss becomes a minor mechanism.
  2. For this reason Chinese tea cups come with lids to retain heat as it is common practise in China to add tea leaves to a cup and brew in the cup and so the water temperature must be kept high for sufficient time. Also, insulated cups/travel mugs for hot beverages come with lids as it is anticipated that the beverage will be imbibed some while after being heated.


  1. "Food Balance Sheets". Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
  2. "A very British beverage: Why us Brits just love a cuppa". Express. 23 September 2016.
  3. Paul Chrystal (October 17, 2014). Tea: A Very British Beverage. Amberley Publishing Limited.
  4. Mair, Victor H.; Hoh, Erling (2009). The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.
  5. Niall Ferguson, Empire: the rise and demise of the British world order, (2004:11).
  6. Rugge's Diurnall is preserved in the British Library (Add. MSS. 10,116-117); it was published as The diurnal of Thomas Rugg, 1659-1661, William Lewis Sachse ed., (1961).
  7. Richard, Lord Braybrooke, ed., note in The Diary and Correspondence of Samuel Pepys, F.R.S., vol. I :109.
  8. Shapin, Steven (July 30, 2015). "Pretence for Prattle". The London Review of Books. 37 (15): 17–18. Retrieved July 24, 2015.
  9. Tea Comes to England
  10. M P John MacGregor. Commercial Statisitics. a Digest of the Productive Resources, Commercial Legislation, Customs Tariffs, Navigation, Port, and Quarantine Laws, and Charges, Shipping, Imports and Exports, and the Monies, Weights, and Measures of All Nations. p. 47. ISBN 9781130006230.
  11. Smith, W. J., ed., Herbert Correspondence, University of Wales (1963), pp. 204-5 no. 353, John Read to Richard Herbert of Oakly Park, Ludlow, 29 June 1672.
  12. "Tea". In Our Time. 29 April 2004. BBC Radio 4.
  13. Sir George Staunton's figure, starting in 1693, is quoted, e.g., in Walvin, James. 1997. "A taste of empire, 1600-1800". (cover story). History Today 47.1 (2001: 11).
  14. Braudel 1981:252.
  15. Braudel 1981:251.
  16. Guerty and Switaj 2004.
  17. Standage, T. (2005). A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker. p. 202.
  18. Tea and the Industrial Revolution
  19. Nguyen, D. T., and M. Rose. 1987. "Demand for tea in the UK 1874-1938: An econometric study". Journal of Development Studies 24.1 (2010): 43.
  20. Guerty, P. M., and Kevin Switaj. 2004. Tea, porcelain, and sugar in the British Atlantic world. OAH Magazine of History 18 (3) (04): 56-9.
  21. Votes for Women 1957, quoted in Tea: A Very British Beverage by Paul Chrystal 2014.
  22. Chrystal, Paul (2014). Tea: A Very British Beverage.
  23. 1 2 URBANARA Infographic: All About British Tea, Guide to British Tea Time.
  24. http://www.twinings.com/int/l2c_perfect_cup.php
  25. Alleyne, Richard (15 Jun 2011). "How to make the perfect cup of tea – be patient". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  26. "How to make a perfect cuppa: put milk in first". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 December 2014
  27. 1 2 George Orwell, Ian Angus, Sheila Davison (1998). "The Complete Works of George Orwell: Smothered under journalism, 1946". p. 34. Secker & Warburg
  28. "How to make a Perfect Cup of Tea" (PDF). Royal Society of Chemistry. 2003.
  29. , The Heat Denaturation of Albumin and Globulin in Milk.
  30. Kyle JA, PC Morrice, G McNeill, and GG Duthie. 2007. "Effects of Infusion Time and Addition of Milk on Content and Absorption of Polyphenols from Black Tea". Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 55, no. 12: 4889-94.
  31. Beverly Dubrin (1 October 2010). Tea Culture: History, Traditions, Celebrations, Recipes & More. Charlesbridge Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-60734-363-9. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  32. Sapsted, David (8 Aug 2007). "Tea room outlaws biscuit dunking". The Telegraph. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  33. Titus, Susan. "Tea: A Brief History". Retrieved 25 April 2016.
  34. "Rest breaks at work". gov.uk. Retrieved 9 May 2016.
  35. "Crunch time: why Britain loves a good biscuit". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 January 2015
  36. "Chocolate digestive is nation's favourite dunking biscuit". The Telegraph. 2 May 2009
  37. 1 2 3 4 "Britons have less time for tea", Food & Drink. 16 June 2003. (Retrieved 2010-05-16.)
  38. "Espresso cups outsell mugs", The Telegraph. 11 Nov 2011.

Further reading

  • Julie E. Fromer. A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England (Ohio University Press, 2008), 375pp
  • Hobhouse, Henry (1987). Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind. Harper. ISBN 978-0060914400. 
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