British Tea Culture

British Tea Culture, we all know it exists, we all know it’s important, but what exactly does it mean? I set out to figure this out by interviewing over 110 people from the United Kingdom about their tea habits. I wanted to see what makes their tea culture unique across all social classes. I deliberately did not ask tea connoisseurs, for we know that the “connoisseur crowd” is a common stripe among all tea cultures.

Assumptions made: British Tea is a black tea, mostly a blended black tea. Teas blends are commonly made up of teas from India (Assam), Sri Lanka, or East Africa.

The following is a tag cloud of words that I gathered from asking the question “what does tea mean to you?”:

What Tea Means to the UK

My favorite response:

“If the day is a sentence, tea for me is the punctuation.” – Andy Callaghan

Hearing a lot about how tea is considered a small meal or a time of the day in Britain, I asked the respondents whether tea was a time of the day, a meal, or supper. I realized later on that it was probably a mistake to ask if tea was a beverage as well, as most responses included this as an answer. It was possible to choose more than one answer.

what_word_tea_means
When asked what food is most likely to accompany tea:

50% drink tea with biscuits

27% drink tea on its own

9% drink tea with cake

The term “biscuit” is used a bit differently in the UK than in America. Typically, rich tea biscuits, digestives or hobnobs are consumed with tea. They are a hard biscuit that can be dipped in tea.

Tea bags seem to be a favorite with 71% preferring them as opposed to 13% loose and 15% other (whatever that means). Of those that answered loose, steeping methods ranged from the most common answer “strain the tea once steeped” to “use of a filter while steeping.”

loose_or_bagged

When asked whether they steep tea directly in a tea cup or mug or in a tea pot, I was surprised at how few people use tea pots:

69% brew tea in a tea cup or coffee mug

19% brew tea in a tea pot

12% use something other than tea pots or cups/mugs

I’ve read about the use of brown teapots called “brown betty” teapots, the interwebs seem to think that these are widespread throughout the UK, however only 17% of respondents had actually heard of them and 6% actually owned one.

brown_betty

Most remember drinking tea as a child, in fact:

The average age that Brits remember drinking tea is 9

9% of respondents could not remember the age at which they begun drinking tea but answered “for as long as I can remember.”

Now we move into touchy territory, preparation preferences. I asked “how do you take your tea” and gave four options: with milk, with sugar, with milk and sugar, and other. Here are the results:

how_do_you_take_your_tea

Another personal preference that has sparked many a debate is what to add first, milk or sugar.

67% add milk first

33% add sugar first

The next section of the survey dealt with “builder’s tea” something that garnered some “colorful” responses. “Builder’s Tea” is a name given to what some describe as a “working man’s tea” – a very strong  brew with copious amounts of milk and sugar in it.

builders_tea

Here are some of the answers I received when I asked “what does builder’s tea mean to you?”:

Builder’s tea is

“overly strong, excessively tannic” / “very strong, milky, two sugars” / “very strong and sweet” / “something revolting for morons” / “bog standard, everyday tea” / “ordinary tea with no frills, fairly strong”

Back to tea-ware, I wanted to find out what most people owned as far as tea implements go. One thing I quickly learned was that nearly everyone uses electric kettles in the UK and boiling water on the stove is rarely done. I even found this amusing post about the predictable surge in electricity demand that the power infrastructure must deal with each day. Here is a tag cloud gathered from responses to the question: “Do you own a kettle, a tea pot, and teacups? Tell me about your teaware:”

tea-ware_cloud

When asked what their favorite brand was, respondents gave a wide variety, but the most common brands were Twinings, Yorkshire, PG Tips and Tetley. Here are the results:

23% Twinings

22% Yorkshire

17% PG Tips

5% Tetley

33% Other

While everyone has their own personal favorite way to prepare tea, the most common way to prepare tea in the UK seems to be:

Freshly boiled water is poured from the electric kettle into a mug over a tea bag. After several minutes, the tea bag is removed and milk is added and sometimes sugar. Actually, be right back, I think I’ll have a cuppa.

yorkshire_gold_tea

Interestingly enough, Royal Society of Chemistry has put out a release entitled: “How to  make a Perfect Cup of Tea” check it out for a more detailed guide to making tea.

To the British, tea is important, tea is always offered to guest upon arrival to one’s home, tea is always offered in times of crises, and in times of celebration, at all times really. A cuppa is said to solve all problems.

Many thanks to the friends I met in my travels that helped me with this post and to the wonderful people of r/askuk. Any questions or comments? Feel free to leave a message in the comments below.

2018-05-15T08:40:36+00:00

About the Author:

Tony has been studying tea for over ten years and has traveled to many tea producing regions throughout Asia. His book, "Tea: A User's Guide" is available now.

28 Comments

  1. Robin April 12, 2017 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    I have drunk tea since I was a young boy. I was brought up on loose tea and still drink it. Far better than tea bags. Make in the teapot. Pour through a strainer, milk in the mug first. Coffee is fine but ultimately it has to be tea.

    • Geoff Vincent April 18, 2017 at 10:40 pm - Reply

      Robin, your post struck a chord with me. I remember my dad saying “they make tea bags out of the tea swept up off the floor! yuck!” Like you, he liked only loose-leaf tea, and only when it was “fresh”. That’s why he bought Liptons brand in Nebraska. He thought the grocer moved it quicker than the expensive brands, and it was therefore fresher.

      • Robin April 19, 2017 at 9:18 am - Reply

        Your Dad was a wise man Geoff!. I never drink tea out, it’s usually disgusting. I like to try new brands but I’m not a fan of green tea. Give me a proper tea any time.

  2. Chris Kavanaugh August 24, 2016 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    I worked briefly with a british mechanic serving a large expat community and lots of vintage british cars preserved in the california sunshine. I get fed up buying overpriced coffees with
    funny names. I assembled a tea service; Sadler Brown Betty, sterling tea leaf strainer, demerara sugar and creamers and cups. The nearby import shop provided digestives.
    customer pulls in very upset. Her MK V Jaquar had been kicked by a kid in a Mustang and bore a bashed fender.
    At that moment one of the Spanish Heinkel 111s used in movies flew overhead. It’s predatory bird shadow fell on this East End Blitz survivor and she looked up and fell apart.
    My cobbled together tea mess meant more, did more than any valium.

  3. nick elliott July 6, 2016 at 9:34 am - Reply

    I am British, well Northern Irish, well European, no… erm, I am not sure about that at the moment. Anyway, I love a good cup of tea. Always with milk though. Of course I enjoy green tea and other infusions such as fresh mint tea, chai etc. but when I go back home to Northern Ireland (guess I need a visa now) I will expect to drink at least 6 cups of tea with milk per day. Wherever you go you will be given a cup of milky tea before you get a chance to say not thanks and you will receive another top-up or replacement cup of tea (and biscuits, digestives mostly) before the first now has had time to cool down. I am not kidding, it is almost like that scene from Father Ted https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0anR6t56PX8

  4. Hoa January 14, 2016 at 7:01 am - Reply

    Can you please tell briefly me the influence and symbol of tea into British people’ s culture? I am doing a research on that. Thank you

    • Chris Kavanaugh March 3, 2016 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      Read FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA by Sarah Rose to start.

  5. Jenny December 15, 2015 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    And Tony please expose the use of plastic in tea bags in your research. Yuck!! Won’t even break down on garbage heap.

  6. stevie August 30, 2015 at 6:50 am - Reply

    pg tips is best in my opinion. twinings are great but they make speciality teas, assam, earl grey etc. . yorkshire tea is over rated. for a great cup of basic british *somewhat builders tea* PG Tips is best.
    great website mate!

  7. Gene Eggleston August 26, 2014 at 6:09 am - Reply

    I like Bigelow’s Constant Comment tea with its orange rind and hint od spice.
    I have tried duplicating it myself, unsuccessfully.
    Is there a better tea you might recommend with these qualities?
    Gene Eggleston

    • Vee May 27, 2015 at 9:09 am - Reply

      Drinking Constant Comment now! With a little milk and a moderate amount of sugar.

      Tony, your article is a very nice read.

  8. Greg December 11, 2013 at 6:24 am - Reply

    Very interesting and informative, thanks for posting! I would be interested in knowing what brands dominated the “Other” category.

  9. R.Sriganeashan August 5, 2013 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Hi

    I am a Planter In SriLanka and reading for MBA . For My marketing assignment I have selected a subject as tea export to UK (Branded Tea). your information are very usefully to me.

  10. tea service sets April 30, 2013 at 3:52 am - Reply

    Excellent info – thanks for compiling it all. Also like the graphs.

  11. Ajit April 14, 2013 at 9:36 am - Reply

    I am retired but was growing and manufacturing black teas (both the Orthodox and CTC variries) for the last 45 years in my own Tea Estate in Assam. There are so many ‘variables’ in growing and manufacture of teas that it requires a life time just to gather the basics. Quality in tea is a gift of nature, we human only try to keep this quality intact in growing, in manufacturing and also in brewing of the cup we would drink.

  12. Tom Conte March 4, 2013 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    Love the post, Tony! I find the use of graphs incredibly refreshing compared to either infographics or plain text posts.

    By chance, did you happen to speak to anyone about their intake of coffee? I know Britain is largely known as tea drinkers but there seems to be a downward trend amongst younger Brits.

  13. Lena Zegher March 4, 2013 at 8:29 am - Reply

    For me, the popular conception of tea in the UK is so different from enthusiast teas that they may as well be completely different drinks. I think the same is true for chocolate, coffee, beer and probably a wide range of things.

    • Tony Gebely March 4, 2013 at 8:50 am - Reply

      I agree, this is why I surveyed people that largely were not enthusiasts.

  14. Jean | Delightful Repast March 3, 2013 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Tony, I’m so glad I discovered your blog through your following me on Twitter. Having been “raised English” in the US (mother’s family from Cumbria and Yorkshire), tea has always been a part of my life. I was probably two when I had my first tea and remember well drinking tea with my grandmother when I was four. I just posted a tea review and included in the post my directions on How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea. PS I drink tea throughout the day (and sometimes night!), so if I had a biscuit or cake every time I drank tea I would be a very unhealthy person!

  15. teatrade February 5, 2013 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    Great stuff, thanks Tony. Here’s another commonly debated British tea question; should you put the tea or the milk into the cup first? I’d say with tea poured from the pot, milk first probably wins. Sadly that can apply to bags brewed in the mug too: Cup, milk, bag on milk, boiling water. Best not to dwell on that. There was a discussion of this big question in The Guardian, you can find it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,,-1400,00.html

    One other thought, several minutes for a tea bag in a mug seems long. From what i’ve seen that might happen in a teapot, but in a mug it’s whisked out within 30 seconds, as soon as it looks “brown enough.”

  16. Ricardo Caicedo February 5, 2013 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    Very informative. How did you interview people, just talking to them on the street?

    • Tony Gebely February 5, 2013 at 3:33 pm - Reply

      Thanks. I used Google Forms. This will be the first in a series of surveys on unique tea cultures for a section of my upcoming book.

    • thetoastmonster February 5, 2013 at 3:37 pm - Reply

      Tony posed his question to the community at http://reddit.com/r/askuk

  17. Dave February 5, 2013 at 11:45 am - Reply

    “It’s” is short for “It is”. “Its” is the possessive form.

    “27% drink tea on it’s own”27% drink tea on it is own?

    • Tony Gebely February 5, 2013 at 11:50 am - Reply

      i know, it was an error. great catch, thanks.

    • Geoff Vincent January 5, 2016 at 7:16 pm - Reply

      Thank you for the article. Just reminiscing. I grew up drinking tea, not coffee, in rural Nebraska, USA. I don’t know much about my own heritage, but my folks brewed hot tea in a pre-warmed pot, from cold tap water boiled on the stove. They had it with milk and sometimes honey. We children were allowed our first real (not Cambric) tea at age 13 on our birthday, and were encouraged to have tea with the adults after that age. We had tea daily during and after all meals, but we did not really have a tea time in the afternoons. I’ve wondered if my parents inherited this behavior or acquired it. I know this was very different from my friends’ parents, who were all coffee drinkers. Both my parents have long since passed away, thus it’s not easy to find out why my family was different. Happy Days!

  18. Trudi Topham February 5, 2013 at 7:27 am - Reply

    Great stuff, Tony! I think the infographics really make it pop, too.

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