The eccentricities of British tea drinkers
Words by Sarah Chamberlain | Illustration by Joël Penkman
Sarah Chamberlain moved to the UK in 2009 and lived in Edinburgh and London for seven years before returning to California. A historian of modern Britain and an enthusiast for all things gastronomic, she spends her days thinking about why British people eat and drink what they do. Here she shares her observations about British drinking and dining, from everyday foods and rituals to more obscure traditions.
I come from a place where hot beverages don’t have meaning. That’s not to say that we don’t drink them – anyone who’s watched an American film knows we’re a nation of coffee lovers. We drink everything from the lightweight, endlessly refilled mugs in diners to the paper cups of sweet caffeinated drinks from various chains. Even as I am writing this, I’m sitting in a branch of a Californian chain sipping house coffee.
But for all of Americans’ love for coffee, there’s no real ritual attached to it. Coffee, even with fancy trappings, is fuel. It’s the kick-start to the day.
It was when I moved to the UK that I realised tea is very different. It wasn’t like I hadn’t drunk it before. I had consumed my share of sugary chai lattes as a college student, and I shared my countrymen’s fondness for a sweating glass of iced tea with lemon on a scorching day. (Friends, can we talk about your national failure to understand this concept? Suffice to say that Lipton flavoured iced tea is an abomination. And don’t give me that horse manure about how you drink hot beverages in a hot climate. That is just masochism of the highest order.)
"Where coffee will make you jittery and fearful for the quality of that night’s sleep, tea is a gentle but firm nudge through the doldrums of the afternoon"
In Britain I started to drink bog-standard builder’s tea because I didn’t really have a choice. It was everywhere I went, offered to me in every flat, office, and common room. At first I said yes because I wanted to be agreeable and blend in. But after a few months I said yes because I really wanted a cup.
As the British have known for centuries, tea is the perfect boost, especially after lunch. Where coffee will make you jittery and fearful for the quality of that night’s sleep, tea is a gentle but firm nudge through the doldrums of the afternoon. This became especially clear to me once I went to work in London and experienced British office culture.
"The rounds system is impossible to say no to, even if you’ve had three cups of tea in the last hour and are starting to vibrate"
I was familiar with the rounds system from pubs, but the office tea round took this to a whole other level. Simply asking the question “How do you take your tea?” created levels of complexity I hadn’t thought possible. One person wants you to leave the bag in for only a moment before adding loads of milk. Another wants it so strong that you add water to theirs first, make all the other cups, deliver them, and then sing “God Save the Queen” twice before taking their bag out. (Yes, I realise that I could have just left the bag in, but the sight of wet used teabags puddling on a desk is just not nice.)
And even with all this palaver, the rounds system is impossible to say no to, even if you’ve had three cups of tea in the last hour and are starting to vibrate. If you try, you end up facing severe peer pressure, as demonstrated by Father Ted:
After nearly seven years in the UK, I could truly say that I loved a cup of tea, in all the forms that it came in. The homely mug of PG Tips or Tetleys. Loose-leaf Assam in glamorous London restaurants. Builder’s tea from an urn, so strong and tannic it makes you lick your teeth, with a big heaping spoonful of sugar mixed in to soften the bitterness. To me, tea is comfort and encouragement, the arm around your shoulders and the slap on your back.
"To me, tea is comfort and encouragement, the arm around your shoulders and the slap on your back"
And the best thing of all: making someone a cup of tea says more than just “Have something to drink.” Tea-making is an outlet for the repressed emotions coursing around the British system. “I’ll put the kettle on” can mean “Welcome.” “I’m so sorry.” “It’ll be OK.” “I love you.” Now that I’ve returned home, I miss that. Sure, I can make a good cup of tea here (with Twinings brought over from the UK of course, no Lipton’s accepted), but it’s just not the same.
Oh, and in case you were wondering: strong, extra milk, no sugar.