The History of Tea

High vs. Afternoon tea? English vs. Irish breakfast? Darjeeling vs. Assam?

Such were the many questions that struck me as I went on a quest to learn more about “taking” afternoon tea. I usually get my daily dose of caffeine from drip coffee, but upon visiting a British tea shop with a friend one afternoon, I was struck by how complex the world of tea really is. I was baffled by what I saw on the menu… Indian teas, Chinese teas, Japanese teas, and tisanes. And the elaborate ritual involved! A little silver tower of all kinds of delicious goodies was presented, and then the tea was poured out for us. My curiosity was piqued, and I embarked on a journey to find out what the fuss was all about.

Tea actually began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. The first evidence of the use of tea was in tea containers found in Chinese burial chambers dated 5,000 years ago. Tea is simultaneously a mild stimulant and also relaxing. Strangely enough, it is also able to increase the nutritional properties of other foods. Tea leaves themselves are edible and are often still used as a key ingredient in everyday foods in the poorest parts of Asia. Beyond its healthy properties, tea took on literary, artistic and even religious overtones in Asia before circling the globe to become the refined British ritual of afternoon tea.

Tea journeyed to the west by way of the great trading empires of Portugal and Holland, eventually making its way to Britain, where the people embraced it with much of the fervor found in Asia. By 1700, tea began competing with ale as the everyday drink of preference, largely because of the industrial revolution. (It was not a good idea for most Brits to drink plain water, since diminishing water quality in cities led to an increase in disease.) This period of history was the perfect opportunity for tea-drinking to take hold.

Since tea requires the boiling of water before consumption, there was an improvement in the healthy hydration of the people. Even babies breastfed by mothers who drank tea were absorbing healthful tea chemicals (phenols) directly in the breast milk and then were weaned onto weak tea. The health implications for Britain’s urban populations were significant, as were the impact on the future of the British Empire. Imagine how much more both industrial workers and captains of industry were able to accomplish, with a nice high-octane cup o’ tea in the afternoon!

It seems natural that along with all of this tea drinking that some rituals would need to be established. The traditions of high and afternoon tea are thought to have been developed to create some “rules” around when, where, and how tea was taken. Due to many workers coming home later from the new factories, the dinner meal began later and later (around 7 pm) in the day, and folks started to need a snack to tide them over in the late afternoon. With the social opportunity that presented itself along with this new meal, a whole new ritual was born.

Working-class women would preside over the teapot at the end of the working day, serving a meal consisting of strong tea, and savory, hot food (called high tea). By the 1860’s upper class women threw elaborate tea parties earlier in the afternoon with rigid rules, and presented many of the classic finger foods we are familiar with today, such as crustless sandwiches and scones with clotted cream.

This upper crust invention is the ritual we now call afternoon tea. If you choose to host an afternoon tea at home, or visit a tea room to take afternoon tea, look for some important elements. Either a china or silver tea set for proper steeping and serving the tea, sugar cubes, cream, and sometimes lemon, depending on the types of tea presented, and a light meal of sweet and savory tidbits. Typical accompaniments should include thinly sliced meat and cheese/egg sandwiches, scones and cream, and slices of various cakes or cookies.

The preparation of the tea, however, is the centerpiece of the ritual, and attention must be paid! A proper tea service involves near-boiling water poured directly into one or more pots with high-quality, loose leaf tea added directly into the pot. Not confining the tea to tea bags or a ball lets the tea “blossom”, allowing it to fully express its character. It might surprise you to experience tea this way, as it did me. How different and wonderful the tea experience is when it is brewed the right way, and with appropriate flourishes! Apparently the ritual has inherent meaning even in this day and age—tea is just more delicious when it’s “afternoon tea”.

If you would like to experience afternoon tea, we encourage you to try these local tearooms:
Hawthorne Tea Room, Tacoma:
Tea Lady, Olympia:
The Secret Garden Tea Shop, Sumner:
Steeped in Comfort, Lakewood: