Most of us know that tea-drinking, for us Americans, began somewhere in England. We know our history well enough to know that our founding fathers and their compatriots even threw their beloved tea leaves in the Boston Harbor in protest of the taxation that King George put on it.
But how do tea-drinking habits differ between America and England now? Sure, we consume more coffee and soda than the average Brit, but what about our tea styles?
Americans have “coffee breaks,” but Britons have “tea,” for short. Companies allow for these breaks to take place whether or not tea is actually consumed, and sometimes provide biscuits (not the fluffy kind we see at KFC and Cracker Barrel here, the semi-sweet “digestive” biscuits or cookies) to be served as well.
The British are the second-largest tea-consumers in the world, falling slightly behind Turkey. The Brits consume 2.1 kg of tea per person, and Turkey consumes 2.2 kg of tea per person, a statistic which surprised me, as I expected China to be ahead of England in tea consumption, if only because China is so large and its population so immense.
Regardless, Brits tend to drink their tea with milk and a bit of sugar, if required. There is a drink that’s called “builder’s tea,” but that contains tea, a good portion of milk, and two (or more) teaspoons of sugar, often served in a “beaker” (mug) and not a teacup.
Americans, if they opt to drink tea instead of coffee, often “pollute” (according to my English-descendant father) their tea with half & half or cream, and may include any variety of sweeteners.
Most Britons will consume an average of 5 cups per day, but as in any culture, there are some who simply aren’t satisfied with the “norm” and go far beyond. Just as there are Starbucks addicts in major cities all around the US, there are English tea-drinkers who will consume 15-20 cups per day.
The English definitely have a different method of preparing their tea, often called a “tea ritual,” and they tend to stick to it. The kettle is put on to boil and then a bit is added to the teapot in order to warm the pot. The water in the teapot is swirled around a bit and then poured out; loose tea or tea bags are then added to the pot. My grandfather always said, “one for each person and one for the pot,” but it was never clear to me if he meant full teaspoons, tablespoons, or some other quantity. After putting the tea in the teapot, the rest of the boiled water is added and the tea is permitted to steep.
Interestingly, there are now widgets for iPhones and Macs that are called “tea timers” so your tea doesn’t steep too long and become bitter – they count down and alert you when to drink your tea. In America, we tend to have infusers in teapots to contain the leaves; in England, it’s more common to put loose leaves in the pot and then use a small strainer over the cup to catch the leaves as one pours the tea. Milk is added either before or after pouring the tea, and then sweetened to taste by the individual drinker. If there is tea left in the pot after serving, a tea cozy is used to maintain the temperature of the teapot and its contents.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her “Pa” slurping his tea from his saucer, which I found to be odd when I read the books as a child; I simply couldn’t envision how to do that and not make a mess. Today, slurping from saucers is definitely considered a breach of etiquette, but fifty years ago (and more), it was commonplace.
One will rarely find any sort of tea ceremony in America, unless it is in an upscale hotel or restaurant that specializes in unique dining experiences altogether. We tend to drink much more bagged-tea and iced-tea than Brits do, but looking at the landscape of tea-producers in the US, it’s not surprising. There are several different types of tea sold in tea bags that are specifically for brewing sun-tea or iced-tea, and the herbal tea section of a supermarket often contains more boxes of infusions or teas with specific health-claims than simple varieties of black teas.
Regardless, if you’re a tea aficionado, the history of how your favourite beverage came to be and how you consume it is an interesting one to consider. Drink it with milk and sugar or without (I prefer without), in bone china or in a hand-thrown mug, pinkie-finger in or pinkie-finger out. But drink up, and enjoy the history & culture lesson.
Read more of Sue’s writing on her blog, A Mother’s Heart.
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