What Is Afternoon Tea?

Illustration by Jo Kelly

Recently, a friend asked me to define exactly what afternoon tea is, and I thought to write this article for the uninitiated, perhaps something you could share with a friend before their first afternoon tea. As with any living tradition, afternoon tea continues to organically evolve to reflect the trends and customs of the day. What never changes is what is at the heart of this tradition: creating a time to pause our daily business and connect with loved ones over tea and refreshments in a relaxing setting.

Afternoon Tea Is A 190-Year-Old British Tradition

Afternoon tea began in upperclass English homes of the 1830s, when the after-dinner tea ritual (pictured below), moved earlier in the day to 4ish, filling the gap between lunch and a late dinner (watch the full story here). Early versions of afternoon tea included tea served with buttered toast or a slice of cake, but over time the afternoon tea menu grew into the three-course meal of finger foods we know today:  tea served with finger sandwiches or savories, warm scones with spreads (like clotted cream, strawberry preserves and lemon curd) and desserts.

Though she did not invent afternoon tea, during the Victorian era, Anna Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford, set the trend, inviting friends to join her for afternoon tea whether she was at home or staying with friends. It just so happened that the Duchess’ social circle included members of Queen Victoria’s court, where earlier in the century, Anna had served as a lady-in-waiting. Consider today’s “influencers”; well, when Queen Victoria starts taking afternoon tea…the world soon follows. For the curious, our Tea Story page has the full origins story on afternoon tea.

Afternoon Tea Comes from High Society

Originally, only the upper classes could afford to enjoy afternoon tea because: 1. tea leaves were very expensive, and 2. the wealthy could take their leisure in the afternoons, unlike the working class. First served as a light snack with tea at home in the drawing room or parlor, over time the afternoon tea menu became more elaborate, and was offered in hotels, department stores and tearooms — the first restaurants it was socially acceptable for an unescorted woman to frequent. To this day, afternoon tea etiquette and fashion echo high society customs, inviting us to practice our social graces and dress in our finest.

Afternoon Tea Is A Meal You Eat with Your Hands

A full afternoon tea is quite the production, served on the iconic 3-tier tray piled with finger sandwiches and/or mini savories, scones with spreads (like clotted cream, strawberry preserves, lemon curd) and sweets, accompanied, of course, by plenty of tea. Everything served in the afternoon tea menu is traditionally petite, originating from the early days of afternoon tea, when elegantly dressed guests would take tea in the drawing room or parlor, at low or side tables, or milling about the room. To keep their fine clothing neat while they sipped their tea, they were offered tiny treats and finger foods, easily manageable while holding onto one’s teacup and saucer.

Afternoon Tea Menus Range from Light to Plentiful

Afternoon tea menus reflect the creativity and heritage of the host (check out our themed tea menu suggestions), and if they don’t conform to the English afternoon tea foods, that’s okay with us, as long as they’re scrumptious. Traditionally, the food is homemade and/or scratchmade. Especially in the multicultural United States, afternoon tea recipes represent a variety of cuisines, from Italian to Russian to Mexican, which we love. First, tea is poured, then the food arrives, ranging from a light menu of 2 or 3 items, to the standard 3-course menu, even possibly with added soup, salad or quiche. See below for a quick primer on tea menu variations called Cream Tea, Royal Tea and High Tea (actually a wholly separate meal; historically a working class supper). For full descriptions, please visit our Afternoon Tea 101 page.

Afternoon Tea Can Be Fancy or Casual

Given its upperclass roots, afternoon tea (either at home or out) is often an elegant affair, served on fine china, at tables adorned with linens and lace, fresh flowers and perhaps favors for the guests. These formal settings give us an opportunity to style ourselves in gloves and fabulous tea hats or fascinators that complement our teatime finery (more on tea fashion here). Afternoon tea is also enjoyed as an impromptu gathering at home, or in a casual cafe or tea shop, where the focus is on delicious tea, homemade treats and good company. The more casual afternoon tea (what we at Destination Tea sometimes call “DIY afternoon tea”) may not have all the trappings of the 3-tiered tray, but allows guests to come as they are, and is easier to prep without advance notice. Depending on the region and how upscale the venue is, a full afternoon tea can range anywhere from $15 to $85 in the United States.

At Afternoon Tea, We Take Time to “Spill the Tea” Properly

No matter how many forms of social media are invented, the art of the conversation will be preserved — at the tea table! Since its start, afternoon tea is a social custom that invites friends and family to gather over a cup of tea, and tell all. The meal is intentionally leisurely, typically lasting about 2 hours, and sometimes much longer, or at least as long as is needed to cover the business at hand. At afternoon tea, we catch up, open up and give each other love and support. Meaningful conversation, laughter and grace are at the heart of afternoon tea, where memories are made.

Afternoon Tea Is Habit-Forming

Once the afternoon tea bug bites you, don’t be surprised if you become a bit obsessed. You may find yourself seeking out afternoon tea wherever you go (use our U.S. Afternoon Tea Directories to help you find one when you travel), and recruiting friends and family to join you. Or when you party plan, you think, the obvious choice is to throw a tea party. It’s a common phenomenon and we think, completely understandable, given the delights and beauty of the afternoon tea experience. No two afternoon teas are completely alike, so, as Jennifer Stowe of Three Sisters Tearoom in Tennessee says, we begin “collecting tearooms,” eager to discover each one’s scratchmade menu, tea selection and ambiance. Then before you know it, you have a close group of tea friends, and you’re setting off on your next tea tour; or the family gathers for Christmas, which means it’s time for a multigenerational Holiday Tea. Our advice? Embrace a passion for afternoon tea, and let the joy flow into your life!

ladies of Southern Tea Time Getaway Tour
The lovely ladies of the Southern Tea Time Getaway Tour welcome me for the afternoon. Photo courtesy of RelevantTeaLeaf.blogspot.com
Tea Voyageuse, discovering the world of afternoon tea, based in Atlanta, Georgia.


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