Travel Tips

England’s Tea Culture: A Beginner’s Guide For Your Next United Kingdom Vacation

Everything you need to know to order like a local

The Vacationeer
Stunning aerial view of English town and shoreline, Norfolk, England.

For many travelers, tea and Britain are an inseparable pairing. If you’re planning a U.K. vacation, you may have questions about tea time in England. What exactly is a “cuppa”? How do you choose between blends such as English Breakfast or Irish Breakfast? What is that distinct flavor in Earl Grey? And how do you choose between afternoon and high tea?

We’re breaking it down for you in this brief guide to British tea culture.

English afternoon tea display.   

The Trade

Tea arrived in Britain via Portuguese and Dutch traders, who were the first to export it from India and China. Perhaps surprisingly, coffee was the hot drink of choice in England until tea gained popularity in the mid-17th century.

Within a few decades, it displaced gin and ale as the favorite drink of the working class.

The government responded by heavily taxing tea, leading to tea smuggling and adulteration. After attempts to curb both of these illicit industries, the government got behind the tea importation business and gave the East India Company a tea trade monopoly. By the mid–1800s, Britain was thoroughly invested.

Fancy A Cuppa?     

While a “cuppa” — short for a cup of tea — is a familiar term that refers to the beverage, you likely won’t come across it unless your host or server is extremely casual. But feel free to try it out at one of these top spots during afternoon tea. 

Different Varieties

English Breakfast is a full-bodied black tea comprising Assam, Ceylon and Kenyan, blended to stand up to milk and sugar. This blend is ideal for the morning and is one of the most popular British teas. Its counterpart, Irish Breakfast tea, is equally as strong but leans more heavily toward Assam tea leaves in construction.

Couple talking, smiling, taking tea together.   

Another classic English blend is Earl Grey tea, which has a base of black tea. It’s categorized as an infused tea because of the bergamot orange rind that flavors it. Surprisingly, this tea is not originally British. Tea masters in China likely invented Earl Grey tea, where they routinely flavored tea with spices, essential oils, flowers and other extracts. Historians believe it was named after Charles Grey, the second earl of Grey and Prime minister of Britain from 1830-1834.

How To Brew

Although tea-brewing customs are no longer formal — for instance, many Brits now use tea bags for speed and convenience rather than loose-leaf tea — the common consensus on proper tea-making includes warming up the cup or pot first. To do this, pour hot water into it and let it stand for a minute, then empty it. (More modern teapots, including glass teapots, don’t require this step.)

Always use fresh water in the kettle. Take care not to over-boil the water, as too-high temperatures can scald or burn more delicate white or green teas. Then, steep for three minutes, regardless of leaf or bag. If you’re using a pot, remove the lid to let more oxygen into the tea.

Once three minutes are up, remove the leaves or bag. Don’t reuse a bag, and never wring it out with a spoon into the pot or cup. Over-brewing and straining tea bags bring out additional tannins, making your tea bitter and causing a drying sensation while drinking. Just lift the bag directly out and set it aside.

Close up, pouring tea, snacks in background, afternoon tea.   


Historically, if a group was having tea, one person would pour it for the others and add accompaniments of milk and sugar. Pouring is still considered a nicety but not a necessity.

If you wish to pour, note that a “white tea” is made with milk and that the milk goes into the cup first. Add the sugar afterward. If you’re making tea in a cup, add the milk after the tea. If you start with it, the tea won’t brew properly.

Note that tea prepared as “black” does not refer to variety. As when referring to coffee, it simply means that the tea is served without milk or sugar.

High Tea

Distinctions such as “afternoon tea,” a light snack around 4:00 p.m., and “high tea,” a later, more substantial supper, have somewhat disappeared in contemporary society. Now “tea” is anything from a traditional, modest repast to a veritable multicultural feast. The modern interpretations are quite fun, and exploring local cafés and tea houses around England to taste the variations can be an activity all of its own.

Read "How To Backpack Through Europe With Hilton Grand Vacations" for more European vacation inspiration. 


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The Vacationeer

The Vacationeer is a collective of Hilton Grand Vacations storytellers whose goal is to inspire travelers to go further. We're always on the lookout for new destinations to explore, useful travel tips, and unique ideas to help you plan the most memorable vacations possible.

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