High Tea vs. Afternoon Tea – A Lesson in British Tea Terms

Precision matters. Whether it’s the careful cultivation of tea leaves, the timed-to-the-second steeping of a cup of green tea, or even the words we use to describe tea time, it’s important to get the details right.

After all, tea lovers care about the finer things, and they know that perfection is achieved through close attention to detail.

In the spirit of precision, let’s look at two different terms that we tend to use interchangeably on this side of the pond – “high tea” and “afternoon tea”.  While both occasions involve drinking tea, the similarities end there; in British society, there are significant differences between the two.

Afternoon Tea – A Classy Affair

Anyone who’s seen Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest or the ever-popular Downton Abbey has seen an afternoon tea. The delightful custom originated amongst the British upper class in the 1840s, and it is defined as a light meal taken between 4 and 6pm that consists of tea served with fancy delicacies like cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon, scones, and little cakes. (You might also find a healthy portion of gossip on the menu!)

The middle class and working class adopted a version of afternoon tea as well for practical reasons: the sugar and caffeine in the tea helped to propel them through the rest of their workday, and the simple food (such as a small sandwich or baked scone) they chose to eat alongside their tea offered fortification.

High Tea – Would You Like Some Meat with That?

Also known as “meat tea”, high tea is another name for working class dinner. A far cry from tiny pastries and pinkies out, high tea is the meal that occurs between 5 and 7pm. This evening meal was first referred to as “high tea” in the 1800s to differentiate it from afternoon tea (“high” refers to the high dining tables on which this tea is served, and it also indicates that the meal occurs later in the day).

A typical high tea meal starts with a hot dish and is followed by cakes and bread with butter and jam.  Working class families, as well as middle-to upper-class children, finish their day with high tea.

There you have it. Afternoon tea is the fancy one and high tea is the meat-and-potatoes one. Tea underpins both occasions and gives everyone around the table, regardless of class or time of day, a reason to smile. Precisely!

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