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  • Writer's pictureFreya Ingva

Etiquette and British Tea Traditions Decoding: High Tea, Low Tea, Afternoon Tea, and Tea

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Tea culture has long been a cherished tradition around the world for many, with tea being the most consumed beverage after water. However, the terms "high tea," "low tea," "afternoon tea," and simply "tea," coined in the UK, often cause confusion for many. Let's unravel the distinctions between these gatherings to help you plan or attend your next tea party with confidence and understanding. This is tea etiquette after all.

Both high tea and afternoon tea share the afternoon setting, but the key difference lies in the timing. Afternoon tea, synonymous with low tea, graces tables around 4 pm in the UK (typically between 3 to 5 pm). High tea, on the other hand, makes its appearance later, usually between 5 and 7 pm.

British tea etiquette traditions decoded: afternoon tea or low tea
Afternoon tea or low tea

Origins reveal another intriguing facet. Afternoon tea originated among the upper class, established by Lady Anna, Duchess of Bedford, embracing a more formal ambiance. High tea, with roots in the working class, exudes a more robust and down-to-earth atmosphere.

Culinary offerings show yet another contrast. Afternoon tea unveils an array of delicate pastries, dainty sandwiches, scones, and cakes. High tea steps up with heartier fare—think meat, potatoes, and vegetables—designed to satiate after a day of toil.

British tea etiquette traditions decoded: high tea
High tea

The names themselves offer subtle clues to the traditions. Afternoon tea, or "low tea," was traditionally enjoyed at a low table, evoking images of cozy gatherings by a fireside or in a garden. High tea, aptly named for its elevation, finds its place at a higher surface like a dining table or counter, a fitting end to the workday.

As laughter and conversation flow, hosting a tea party becomes a charming endeavour. However, understanding the distinction between afternoon tea and high tea is essential to avoid a faux pas.

Afternoon tea dazzles with dainty scones, tea sandwiches, and cakes, best enjoyed in the mid-afternoon. High tea, on the other hand, presents a heartier spread featuring meats, fish, eggs, breads, and desserts, akin to a light supper complemented by tea.

British tea etiquette traditions decoded: tea as evening meal
Tea as evening meal

The evening meal is sometimes referred to as “tea” in the UK, whether it includes tea or not. This is a light dinner and an everyday affair. The origin of this common expression lies in the concept of high tea and its interpretation by the working class.

Keep these differences in mind. While the terms may be used casually by some, the distinctions are striking. As you contemplate hosting a tea gathering, all types of tea parties provide a delightful way to savour teatime and entertain your guests, promising charming moments, culinary delights, and the option of a tea leaf reading with me.

After all, a well-planned tea party is a perfect occasion for tea leaf reading, laughter, conversation, and the joy of shared moments—a testament to the enduring charm of tea.

Etiquette and British Tea Traditions Decoding: High Tea, Low Tea, Afternoon Tea, and Tea

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