Don’t Get Egg on Your Face! Full English Exposé – The British Obsession with Tea (Hard)

The Full English Exposé teaches you more about the English speaking world, so you can be confident you know what you are doing, and you don’t do or say the wrong thing, and don’t get egg on your face.

This edition of the podcast we’re helping make sure you don’t get egg on your face, with the Full English Exposé, all about Tea.

For the easy version, click here.

The British Obsession with Tea

The British are known for our obsession with tea. We drink over 60 billion cups of tea a year. That’s more tea than 5300 Olympic swimming pools. We drink over twice as much tea as we drink water.

Tea first became popular in Britain’s coffee houses in the 17th century. It is said to have been made fashionable after King Charles II wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza, started the custom of drinking tea in the British Court.

Tea imports increased. In the 19th century, we imported so much tea from China, in exchange for rare silver that it caused a trade deficit for the British, and big money problems. To solve this, the British off-set tea with opium. This caused major drug and trade problems for China, and attempts to ban it ended in China being defeated in the two Opium Wars, which claimed tens of millions of lives. All because the British really like tea.

We mostly drink cheap, black tea, from a big mug, made using a tea-bag, brewed strong, usually with a little milk and some take sugar too. Tea made this way is called builder’s tea, due to its popularity among tradesmen, but it’s well-loved outside the trades too despite not being considered ‘refined’.

Builder’s is an everyday tea for every situation. A morning cuppa, a quick drink between jobs, something to wet your whistle as you have a good natter, and the go-to remedy to help comfort and console an upset friend or family member, along with the phrase “I’ll get you a nice cup of tea”.

For an occasion, we tend to take our time over a tea and serve it with a bit of ceremony. The tea is often brewed and poured at the table into dainty cups, resting on saucers. No tea-bags here, the tea would be made from loose leaves, poured through a tea-strainer, and would be more refined than a builder’s tea – either a more delicate black tea like ‘darjeeling’, which can be drunk black, with milk and sugar, or with a dash of lemon, or a speciality tea like oolong, green or a smoked tea, usually served without milk.

Earl Grey is considered a very English tea. Flavoured with Bergamot oranges, it has a reputation as being posh, and was popularised by the Earl Charles Grey, an English Prime-Minister in the 19th century. There are many stories about its origins. One says it was invented to disguise the taste of lime in the Earl’s water. Another says it was a gift after one of the Earl’s employees saved the life of the son of a Chinese official. A third story has it that it was added to low quality tea to disguise the flavour, and then marketed so they could sell it for a premium price.

People argue about how to make the best tea. Whether you put the leaves or water into the pot first. If you have to warm to pot to avoid scalding the tea. Whether loose-leaf tea tastes better than tea-bags. If you should add milk to a cup before or after pouring the tea.

We even argue about how to drink it. There’s a stereotype that posh people hold their little finger out when they drink their posh tea from posh cups. The story is that more cultured people, when eating with their fingers, would only use their first three fingers. So, social climbers would stick out their little fingers, hoping people would notice and think they were cultured. No-one does this seriously anymore, but you’ll often see it done in jest.

Is all this talk making you thirsty? Only one thing to do: pop the kettle on, and have a nice, hot, cup of tea!


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