On Being British and drinking tea


I’ve recently read Pretty Good Number One, a food memoir written by an American on his time spent in Japan. What struck me most was not the differences between US and Japanese cultures, but the similarities between the Japanese and English. Nowhere was this more abundantly clear than when it came to drinking tea. I did some internet research and was informed that although Americans think that they have tea, it’s not the same strength or flavour, they make it with hot (not boiling) water and don’t use milk. Is this true? Can any American readers let me know please?

Personally, I love a good cup of tea. It’s a much gentler way of getting a caffeine fix. A standard response to bad news in the UK is “I’ll stick the kettle on” – which translates to “I’ll make tea” (my internet research also suggested Americans don’t have electric kettles. Is this true? How do you boil water?) Tea is also a standard hangover cure, is given to people in shock and is a great restorative drink after a busy day.

Making tea can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. The easiest way is with a teabag in a mug, but for a fuller flavour you can use loose leaf tea in a teapot. Just to be clear, this is British (black) tea (commonly referred to as builders tea), not herbal, fruit, green or iced tea (I don’t even know what that last one is). There’s lots of different varieties of black tea but I’m going to show you how to make a standard cup of British tea.

First, you need a mug or a cup. Everyone will tell you that tea is better in a China teacup (that’s a cup made from China clay, which is actually British). No one in the UK below the age of 70 actually uses them though, unless you’re having afternoon tea in a nice cafe somewhere. We all use mugs, which are sturdier and can survive the dishwasher.

Below are a few pics of teacups that I’ve inherited from my grandma, and some of my own mugs:

Next, you need to find some tea, either loose or in a teabag:

If you’re using loose tea, you’ll need a teapot and strainer. If you’re using teabag you can add it straight to the mug. 

I have a collection of teapots that I’ve inherited from various relatives:

You’ll then need to add boiling water, either into your mug over the teabag or over the tea leaves in the teapot. I boil my water in an electric kettle, or you can use an old fashioned stovetop whistling kettle:

If you’re using a teapot, leave the tea to brew for a few minutes, then pour it into the cup through the tea strainer. If you’re using a teabag, poke it a bit to release the flavour, then discard. Add milk and sugar, if you want. (Black tea is almost always drunk with the addition of milk. Sugar comes down to personal preference). In all cases, stir. 

That’s it! A lovely cup of tea. Enjoy!

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5 thoughts on “On Being British and drinking tea

  1. Ah…iced tea. Please allow a Canadian connoisseur to wax rhapsodic about iced tea. Americans are experts at iced tea. Canadians somehow misunderstood when it was first explained to them and thought it was a vehicle for sugar (but we’re starting to figure it out). Every British person I’ve ever met is equal parts puzzled and horrified by both American and Canadian iced tea.

    Canadian iced tea is essentially a flavour of pop (soda) without bubbles. It’s a syrupy-sweet tea-coloured drink made either with syrup or with crystals similar to Kool-Aid. You can even buy it in a can. It tastes almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

    American iced tea can be made one of two ways, both delicious:

    Method 1:
    1: Make really strong tea. 2: (Optionally) Allow to cool. 3: Add ice.

    Method 2 (this one typically horrifies Brits the most):
    1. Fill a glass jug with tap water. 2. Toss in a bunch of tea bags. 3. Stick it in the sun for a few hours. 4. Add ice.

    You can add a teaspoon of sugar or a squeeze of lemon if you like. The key to understanding iced tea is to drink it on a really hot, humid, sunny summer day. It’s cool and refreshing, and actually drops your body temperature a couple of degrees.

    As for your questions about American hot tea, having consumed pots and pots of tea in both the US and the UK (and Canada), Americans do tend to drink weaker blends of tea than Brits. My day-to-day drink is Twinings Earl Grey, steeped for too long and consumed black: typical US tea served in a restaurant or hotel is weaker and milder, UK tea is stronger and more bitter. That said, Twinings teas are available in every US grocery store I’ve ever been to. At hotels and B&Bs you typically get hot (not boiling) water for tea, but I’m not sure what they do at home. Lots of Americans put milk in their tea, but not in their iced tea. In some places in the States, if you ask for tea, they bring you iced tea.

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    1. You’re right, I am horrified! Canadian iced tea sounds ok (mainly because it isn’t really tea) but the thought of making tea with cold water just feels fundamentally wrong. In saying that, I can imagine that in hot weather cold tea might actually be quite nice. We don’t really have that problem in the UK so we happily drink hot tea all year round.
      Making tea with hot water is just repulsive! The water MUST always be boiling because otherwise the flavour won’t come out. Weirdly, I think of Twinings as makers of speciality teas (Earl Grey, English Breakfast etc.), they’ve only just brought out a range of everyday teas here in the UK (like, in the last five or so years) so hardly anyone I know drinks them. Can you buy PG Tips or Typhoo tea in Canada/the US?

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      1. You can buy PG Tips and Typhoo in many Canadian grocery stores. I find them too bitter, probably because I like my tea black. Canada’s go-to tea is Red Rose orange pekoe, but I personally drink several cups of Twinings earl grey every day. (Is it weird to drink so much “specialty tea”?)

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      2. Ah, ok. I’m weirdly reassured that ordinary tea is available in Canada!

        Yeah, tea made without milk would be bitter. Can you get Lady Grey tea? It’s like a gentler version of Earl Grey tea, I think you would like it. They’re the only two blends that I would consider drinking without milk.

        I think most Brits see speciality blend teas like cocktails – kept for special occasions and only if someone else is having one! But hey- whatever floats your boat 🙂

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