Most tea drinkers are familiar with high tea — the British version of an extravagant tea party. What many people don’t know is that the event is actually called “afternoon tea”. The event is a popular social gathering and traces its roots back to elite households in the mid-1800s.
If you want to throw your own high tea event, this guide can help you get the job done right. You’ll learn about the different types of afternoon tea so you can create a stunning tea party that dazzles your friends. Want to get your hands on delicious teas for your next afternoon tea party? Check out our collection of the best teas for high tea right here.
Like many cultural events, high tea has gotten slightly lost in translation. What most people think of as high tea is actually afternoon tea. Both events are cultural staples of the United Kingdom and Great Britain where it is celebrated with regional differences in Ireland, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
Traditional high tea was a dinnertime meal enjoyed on high tables. It was mainly a working-class event and popularized among factory workers who returned home after a hard days work famished. The meal consisted of heavier food items such as steak and kidney pie, crumpets and vegetables. In general, a high tea evening meal consisted of meat, a cup of tea, vegetables, and bread. In Ireland, the meal often included barm brack — a fruit cake infused with whiskey or tea.
Afternoon tea is also called low tea and is what most Americans connect with the term "high tea". It's an affair that includes serving finger sandwiches and other light snacks on delicate lace tablecloths. It's a staple event in etiquette classes and enjoyed largely as a social event by elite women. Afternoon tea is consumed in low chairs or sofas centered around a low table in a tea room.
In addition to tea sandwiches, the British upper class included veal, pigeon, and salmon as part of the afternoon tea menu. Participants would gather around in the late afternoon to enjoy the tea tradition as part of a high-class social gathering. Today, the joy of teatime has spread from the Scottish Highlands and London cafes to the Ritz in New York and homes in China.
The history of afternoon tea dates back to the mid 19th century. At this point in human history, the kerosene lamp became mainstream in upper-class households. As a result, enjoying a late dinner became a sign of wealth. Essentially, only the rich could afford to eat dinner around 9 pm. because they were the only ones who could afford light.
With dinner being pushed so late, it was natural to incorporate a lighter meal in the afternoon to prevent hunger in between meals. Most stories point to the Anna Russell — the Duchess of Bedford — as the inventor of afternoon tea. After she invited her high-level friends over to enjoy an exquisite afternoon tea menu, the event became popular in other elite households.
Over time, afternoon tea became popular amongst the masses. Today, the British tea event is enjoyed by many and features new additions including a glass of champagne. The classic teas have been replaced by extravagant tea recipes and the event is infused with influences from cultures across the globe.
Cream tea is a specialty afternoon tea from the Devon and Cornwall regions. The event includes scones, clotted cream, and jam that is paired with British teas including Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea. The Devonian method involves slicing the scone, spreading it with clotted cream and adding a dollop of strawberry jam. The Cornish method applies the jam first and then the clotted cream.
Light tea is a delightfully sweet event that pairs drinking tea with indulging in sweets. Light tea is meant as a light meal and does not include the serving of finger sandwiches. Instead, guests at a light tea event will enjoy scones, sponge cakes, lemon curd, madeleines, and trifles. The meal is focused on British tea favorites including black teas such as Earl Grey and Assam black tea as well as herbal favorites such as chamomile and mint tea.
Full tea is what most Americans associate with British high tea. The event features finger sandwiches and hot tea as well as iced tea. The meal focuses on a blend of both sweet and savory foods. Savory foods may include soups and quiches while sweets tend to offer scones and Battenburg cakes.
This type of afternoon tea is typically served using a three-tiered stand. The savory items are typically placed on the lowest tier while sweets take front stage on the top tiers. According to etiquette rules, afternoon tea should be enjoyed from the bottom tier to the top tier.
Afternoon tea is a great way to enjoy the art of drinking tea with a British flair. Afternoon tea as a social event is also a great way to meet fellow tea lovers and to share delicious new recipes and blends. Throw an afternoon tea party with a few savory or sweet snacks and your favorite tea blends. Make sure to include stunning floral arrangements and display your snacks on tiered stands to truly dive into British tea culture.