Tip: What exactly is “high tea?”

Afternoon tea at the Palm Court in London's elegant Langham Hotel is a sight to behold! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Afternoon tea at the Palm Court in London’s elegant Langham Hotel is a sight to behold! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Next time you are traveling in the UK or elsewhere in the current or former British Empire and a friend or colleague invites you “to tea” will you know what he or she means?

“Tea” can refer to any of several different meals or mealtimes, depending on a country’s customs and its history of drinking tea.

“Afternoon tea” is likely the meal most Americans think of when they hear the term. Afternoon tea is taken between 4 and 6pm and involves tea, scones, clotted cream, finger sandwiches, stacked plates, sweets (see photo) and good manners. It’s the type of tea you’ve likely seen in grand London hotels like the Langham or The Ritz. It’s also what you get on an afternoon flight back from the UK on British Airways.

Important: Afternoon tea is NOT “high tea.” High tea, or just “tea” is the typical hot, heavier evening meal served between 6-8 pm. (What most Americans think of as dinner or supper.) Americans tend to think of high tea as the fancy one…but it is not.

Of course, usage varies by class and location, so if confused by an invitation “to tea,” just be sure to clarify.

Here’s some more info on afternoon tea etiquette from The Langham Hotel’s Palm Court.

What do you think of the tradition of afternoon tea? Is it an appropriate venue for business discussion? Who does it best? 

Chris McGinnis

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  • 2ruse

    thank you chris! it does bug me when ‘high tea’ is used to describe the fancy one, but i’m a bit of a snob and need to get over it…as an inveterate snob, i cannot recommend too highly the afternoon tea at claridges (yes it will be very expensive!) – beautiful room, excellent service and each course simply delectable – i had assumed that i would skip the sandwiches to save room for the good stuff (scones with clotted cream and little pastries), but the bread was so fresh that scarfing was the only way to go – note that there will indeed be no brits in the place at all (and that includes the staff) – definitely a once in a lifetime experience

  • DB

    As an Englishman who has worked in the tea trade I can confirm that McGinnis’s description of “high tea” is accurate. The “high” comes from the height of the table, afternoon tea typically being served at a low “coffee” table and “high tea” at the dining table. You second paragraph, however, “as any fule kno”, is correct.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Hi there MHC… thanks for your comments. I’m not a Brit so I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, British version, and it defines high tea like this: NOUN
    A meal eaten in the late afternoon or early evening, typically consisting of a cooked dish, bread and butter, and tea
    And then there’s this http://britishfood.about.com/od/faq/f/highteavafttea.htm

  • mhc

    As a Brit I can confirm that your description of “high tea” is wrong. High Tea is the more formal, elaborate version of afternoon tea, usually involving nice china and food of better quality in more quantities. Non-“high” afternoon tea usually consists of the beverage plus one or two snack-type things, either savory or sweet.
    Also, using the word “tea” for the main evening meal comes from northern England, the Midlands and the lower social classes in the Home Counties – it is absolutely NOT common usage amongst anyone else.

  • Retired Something

    The short version is that almost any British ‘tea’ event can be fun. More than most tend to be a bit snooty (or snotty?), but usually fun. The longer, more serious version is that ‘tea’ is one more remnant of the long-gone British Empire. What we now know as the UK happened to be on the winning side during WW II, but they still lost their portion of the war. Dear Mr. Churchill nearly camped in Washington – at the White House, lobbying and badgering Roosevelt to direct major military efforts other than those focused upon defeating Nazi Germany, but always defending and at times **even trying to enhance** the British Empire, perhaps with the use if non-British troops. Fortunately, Roosevelt resisted most of these pleas and he certainly humored Churchill beyond reasonable tolerance.
    What does that have to do with British tea? Both are ideal examples of activities by folks who like to pretend. Tea is a silly, but fun exercise for tourists, but damn few Brits engage in the practice regularly. If/when they do, it is usually to impress a guest – and to prove the the UK still often has it’s head in the sand. Today’s UK government can hardly afford to deal with their domestic issues, yet – mostly for historical purposes, demands the right to a major role in in international affairs, even when the U.S. quietly pays their way. British tea – and their real position in the 21st cent. world are polite remnants of a world long gone, oft performed by folks that certainly know, but refuse to admit it in public. Tea is for tourists and diplomats, two groups of clients quite expert in burying their heads in the sand – at least in public. Unless you are a piss-elegant matron over 60 and with far too much time and money on your hands, skip it. Another way to look at British tea is piss-elegant theater – with excellent snacks. And please do not forget that a ‘good tea experience,’ can cost on the high side of $100 per ‘tea cup.’ And lastly, is the basic hot beverage any good? Who knows? by the time the hostess finishes preparing the tea, straining it, adding mile, sugar, lemon and probably Prozac, then stirring it with a cold, conductive spoon, your ‘tea’ is cold! If nothing else, the UK (and Israel) should learn to live within their own means. [Rant Mode=OFF]. Get a grip.

  • Darth Chocolate

    Isn’t that tea made with marijuana?