Where is the Tea in “Afternoon Tea”? - tearebellion

Where is the Tea in “Afternoon Tea”?

Many of us tea lovers have discovered a love for different types of tea through the English tradition of “Afternoon Tea” or “High Tea“. And for this, we are of course forever grateful!
In this blog, we daringly focus our attention on this most traditional of British traditions and pose the question” Where is the Tea in Afternoon Tea?

First, let’s look at the origins of this tea tradition. While we use the term “Afternoon Tea” and “High Tea” interchangeably outside the UK, the historical roots are quite different: 

  • Afternoon Tea – this usually includes sandwiches and scones with clotted cream and jams and sweet pastries and cakes. It is served around 4p.m. and was traditionally served on low tables (i.e. coffee type table).
  • High Tea – this is a more substantial meal taken at about 6 pm, and includes a main dish, usually hot, as well as all of the above. This tea time is served at a higher table (i.e. dinner table or higher). Originally royal, this tradition crossed class lines during the industrial revolution, when workers needed sustenance at the end of their shifts and took “Tea” that included food and tea.

Like many of us, I have fond memories of Afternoon Teas I have experienced. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, my London (UK) based team celebrated special events (a promotion, an engagement, a baby) with Afternoon Tea at cherished London venues (incl. the famous Savoy). I loved these work-team outings as quality time together with colleagues-turned-friends in beautiful surroundings; in short, a culinary and social treat!

Yet, at none of these occasions I actually learnt anything noteworthy about tea. While sipping “Darjeeling”, “Lapsang Souchong” or “Assam” , the most I learnt from the menus was a description of flavour notes. As far as I recall, there was not usually a mention of the particular farmer or tea master. 

Why is that? There may be many reasons coming together, such as a primary focus on food (to nourish workers in the industrial revolution after a long sift in the case of High Tea). However, we believe it’s also because the British created the western tea tradition of drinking blends and flavoured teas instead of pure, single-origin tea. Blends were created both for economic reasons (to lower the price) and to achieve a consistent taste profile.

Fast forward to 2019 – today, we do get detailed tea descriptions at many tea venues some of which are very enticing: For example, the Fairmont gives this jasmine green tea description “Midnight harvested jasmine flowers offer an expansive floral character to creating delicate early spring green tea“. It’s great to see this additional detail! However, tea origin and attribution to a maker/farm continue to be lacking. In fact, as far as we know, no Toronto Afternoon Tea venues (we are compiling a list, stay tuned) is currently crediting tea origins/makers in their menus.

Do we want to abolish Afternoon Tea? Absolutely NOT! Instead we want to see the tradition catch up to the 21st century and reflect tea transparency and origins. Tea in 2019 is no longer the undifferentiated commodity it once was. The global tea market is healthy, taste preferences are evolving and trade is going direct. While many tea lovers discover teas through flavoured teas or blends, over time their palate invariable seeks out the complexity that exist in pure tea. 

@tearebellion we want to see Afternoon Tea evolve to embrace authentic teas with clearly attributable origin. We therefore have a call to action for you, the reader:

  1. Do you know places where Afternoon Tea already highlights tea origins? Amazing, please share in a comment or email
  2. Are you interested in launching a truly authentic Afternoon Tea offering? Awesome drop us a note.
  3. Do you know someone who runs an Afternoon Tea program who would enjoy this post? Please forward!