High Tea 101: A Grand Tradition Explained & Modernized

Afternoon Tea vs High Tea infographic from Sips by

Britain is famous for a lot of things but largely for its rich tea culture. While it’s certainly not the birthplace of tea, Britain played a large part in making tea the globally popular phenomenon it is today.

In fact, the British loved tea so much that they drank it several times throughout the day: at Elevenses, during afternoon tea, and during high tea. Let’s dive into the world of British high tea and discuss how we continue this rich tradition today.

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The History of British Afternoon and High Tea

The British have loved tea ever since it was brought onto their soil by Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. This tea fanatic married into the British royal family and spread her love for tea throughout the country.

As the world evolved, the invention of artificial light began to lengthen our days. Whereas breakfast was still eaten before nine in the morning, the upper class often didn’t eat their evening meal until eight o’clock. 

This massive gap between meal times may have been manageable for some but not for the Duchess of Bedford. On one fateful day in the early 1800s, the famished Duchess requested tea and an assortment of light snacks be brought to her chambers during the afternoon.

The Duchess soon invited her friends over to partake in this afternoon ritual, and it became clear that the Duchess was not the only one suffering from the long gap between meal times. Soon, the ritual spread across the country. Everyone wanted afternoon tea!

However, things were much different for the working class. Members of the working class often finished their work days around five or six in the evening, and they were always famished because they didn’t have the time or the leisure for afternoon tea.

So, the workmen developed their own evening tea tradition: high tea.

What Is High Tea?

High tea was an evening tradition among the working class that typically featured a full teapot and a meal. This was usually a full meal that included bread, cheese, vegetables, and meat.

The meal was called high tea because it was often served at high-seated dinner tables with high-backed chairs. Meanwhile, afternoon tea was sometimes called Low Tea because it was served on low-to-the-ground coffee tables and sofas.

High Tea vs. Afternoon Tea

High tea refers to a full meal designed for complete satisfaction, whereas afternoon tea was created as a light stepping-stone between breakfast and dinner. This means that the menus for each event were drastically different.

High tea was a filling meal that often consisted of dinner staples like roast potatoes and cooked meat, whereas afternoon tea featured biscuits, tarts, and scones. While afternoon tea did evolve to include slightly more filling menu items such as finger sandwiches and savories, the afternoon tea menu had nothing on that of high tea.

Finally, afternoon tea was a highly social event for the upper class. In fact, fashion even evolved to feature fancy dresses made exclusively to be worn at afternoon tea events. Meanwhile, high tea was an event born out of necessity by the working class. 

High Tea vs. Elevenses

Elevenses is another popular British tea time, so it’s natural that you might confuse the two. However, Elevenses has only been around for a little over a hundred years.

As you might expect, Elevenses is a small tea break often taken at around 11 o’clock. This tea time’s menu often features light fare like scones and clotted cream, and it’s typically enjoyed with black tea or coffee. 

High tea is taken in the evening and consists of a much more filling menu, as we mentioned above. Still, these two tea times are both deeply ingrained elements of British culture.

High Tea Today

High tea today is a curious affair. As the traditions of high tea and afternoon tea grew, more and more public eateries began to accommodate the events. Some even published special tea-time menus. 

The two events merged over time, becoming the filling afternoon tea we know today. Tea salons dedicated to the event began to take shape, and these traditional tea times evolved into modern-day tea parties.

Nowadays, plenty of high-class hotels and restaurants serve special afternoon or high tea menus to their guests. Although you may see these two terms frequently, know they are used interchangeably to describe what is essentially an afternoon tea.

Distinguished dining establishments such as The Palm Court, The Ritz, and The Whitby Hotel in New York City serve English Breakfast cream tea alongside tea cakes and tea sandwiches. 

Meanwhile, high-dollar hotels such as The Carlyle, The Baccarat Hotel, and Bergdorf Goodman draw from French cuisine to swerve macarons and petit fours for a true tea experience overlooking famous landmarks such as Central Park.

While NYC, Brooklyn, and Manhattan are hotbeds of elegant and classy teahouses, tea rooms have become more popular in recent years across the country. As menus have evolved to feature more accessibility, many tea rooms even offer gluten-free options. Some tea houses even have creative menus that steer away from traditional fare and feature treats like caviar and a glass of champagne.

How to Host a Modern High Tea

Now that we know what sets high tea apart, it’s time to incorporate this meal into our party-planning repertoire. Here is a three-step checklist to help you host a lovely high tea.

Step One: What Type of Event Are You Hosting?

The first step of hosting a high tea party is deciding whether you would like to model your bash off the event’s modern form or traditional form. If you’re inspired by the tea’s modern form, then your tea party will mostly take after a traditional afternoon tea.

However, if you’re planning on throwing a traditional high tea, you’ll have a lot of cooking ahead of you.

Step Two: Form Your Tea Menu

While tea is delicious on its own, British tea times typically include a snack of some sort. It can be a fun task to craft your menu according to your theme.

If you are doing a modern high tea, we recommend a black tea such as Lavender Earl Grey by Rainy Day Tea Co. Black tea is a traditional choice for British events because of its delicious pair-ability with cream and sugar.

However, if you’re throwing a traditional high tea, we recommend Almond Cookie Herbal Tea by Cookie Tea. Because high tea is taken so late, drinking a black tea high in caffeine could keep you awake longer than you’d like. That’s why a good herbal tea is a wonderful addition to this menu.

If you want to be creative, you can try to throw matcha tea into the mix for your afternoon tea. For a fun twist, try flavored matcha like Lemonade Matcha by 3 Leaf Tea. This is a lovely way to upend tradition and bring a modern twist to a cultural classic.

Step Three: Plan Your Fare

The fare will be the most important part of your party because the food is largely what will determine what kind of tea party you’re throwing. Remember, light snacks are typically served during afternoon tea, while big dinners are synonymous with high tea.

For the modern afternoon-esque take on high tea, we recommend light fares like scones, tea cookies, and finger sandwiches. For high tea, we recommend the full dinner of your choice — bangers and mash, perhaps?

The Final Steep

While the terms high tea and afternoon tea are used interchangeably today, they come from different English traditions. High tea traditionally describes a large meal centered around a hot pot of tea. However, as time evolves, this old British tradition has evolved as well. 

Have fun planning your own modern take on these two historical tea times! 


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The Tea-rific History of Victorian Afternoon Tea | The British Museum 

[You Asked] What is Afternoon Tea? | Driehaus Museum 

What is high tea? | Afternoon Tea

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