How do the British Make Tea? Absolutely Not Like You Think We Do

by JoHarrington

I'm British, therefore my kettle is never off the boil. Let me explode a few misconceptions by telling you precisely how the perfect cup of tea is brewed in Britain.

One of the major stereotypes about the British is that we're all addicted to tea. It's a fair cop - we are!

The first thing I did when I woke this morning was make a cup of tea. I have another one on the desk before me as I write. There have been several more boiled, brewed and consumed in the interim.

I dread to imagine quite how many cups of tea I've drunk this week, let alone in a lifetime. Which means that I'm quite an expert in making tea the British way. I learned from the cradle, and I've had decades worth of practice.

Now I'm here to share my expertise in how the British brew their tea.

How Americans Think Tea is Made in Britain

In the USA, it's known that the British love tea. They once provoked us into war by destroying it. They're just a little shaky on the details.

Image: Britons and the Empire State BuildingI love Americans. Some of my best friends are from the USA, and I've visited their country three times. In fact, here's a photograph of me and a friend with the Empire State Building, just to prove that I've been Stateside.

And being a Briton in America, I've been witness to many a tea related misconception.

Bless America and all who dream upon her. When faced with anyone from Britain, the instinct of those fine US folk is to take us to their tea. Which is fabulous! Because as a Briton so far from home, my natural concern is where precisely the next cup of tea is coming from; and will I have to drain Boston Harbor to get one. That latter being the first known major US misconception in how to brew tea the British way. (NB We tend to use a cup or mug, not a large sea-port. But it's an easy mistake to make.)

The first time I ever traveled to America, it was to be welcomed into the home of a good friend in Nevada. After all the tearful hugs at finally meeting, she led me into her kitchen and proudly opened a cupboard.

As an avowed Anglophile, she had long since been in the habit of collecting English tea. She'd mentioned this before, but as I was a continent away and she seemed happy in her tea collection, I left her to it. Now confronted with several dozen varieties, neatly stacked in gloriously British branded boxes, the full enormity of the situation was driven home.

She had British teas for every conceivable occasion. Morning tea; tea for elevensies; afternoon tea; evening tea; green tea; white tea; tea with pink polka dots... ok, I may have made that last one up, but there really did seem no end to what entrepreneurs would flog to Americans as genuine tea from Britain.

And not one of those boxes - for all the Union Jacks, pictures of London red buses, Big Ben and Y Ddraig Goch motifs - had I ever seen in my life before that moment. We just drink the bog standard stuff from the supermarket. One box to suit all occasions.

British Tea as Never Seen in Britain

To be fair, they're probably here somewhere. Almost certainly in the tourist shops, where foreign visitors may gleefully purchase them to their heart's delight.

From my travels in the USA, one of my funniest memories involves a lesson in how to make tea the English way. You wouldn't think I'd need the prompting, would you? But then you wouldn't believe how it was being brewed.

I was in Colorado this time, in a small residential town close to Denver. It wasn't the sort of place that usually attracts tourists. But then most foreign visitors don't have a friend living there.

She was gleeful in announcing to us that her town had a traditional English tea shop. Would we like to visit it?  We had perfectly good cups of tea brewed in her own kitchen (I'd packed plenty of tea-bags), but we were intrigued. Thus it was that two Britons ended up visiting a quaint British tea shop in small-town America.

Which was not something that the English proprietors had ever envisaged happening.

Apparently Americans think that the British obsession with tea means that there must be some great ceremony involved in its preparation. (That's the Japanese, not us. Though I'd be lying if I didn't admit to an unspoken British Tea etiquette.) So the Derbyshire couple running that English tea shop in Colorado had invented a British way of making tea, ceremonially. Which we, as Britons, would obviously know, given that we're supposed to perform it all the time.

We could see the panic in the owner's frozen stare the second she discerned our accents. There was nothing on her extensive menu of authentic British teas that we recognized. Her eyes widened like a doe trapped in headlights. We each selected something, smiling sweetly at her.

Now all she had to do was somehow communicate the ceremony, so we'd perfectly brew our teas the British way. With a tea-shop full of American patrons watching on, proudly aware that their town had provided this genuine taste of home for two foreign visitors. How surprised we must be! And how thrilled too.

That famous mid-Western hospitality fulfilled in full.

Everyone witnessing the moment when the English woman arrived with our orders. Placing onto the table cafetiere teapots swimming with loose tea; timers already set; little ceramic pots; prongs; stirrers; spoons; sugar; milk; lemon... you name it, it was there and plenty that you wouldn't think of either. And a gaze which begged in extreme anxiety, behind a primly professional expression. Because she couldn't tell us anything. Everyone was listening in.

Thus my British friend and I encouraged our American hostess, sitting right there at the table with us, to demonstrate her proficiency in British ceremonial tea-making. And we followed suit, always just a second or two behind, casually pretending that we did this all of the time.

A look of relieved thanks was cast in our direction by the proprietor as we left. Not entirely deserved, as we burst out laughing as soon as we were safely in the car, then confessed all to our friend. She found it as hilarious as we did.

British Tea Making Tools Never Used in Britain

I'll admit to the tea strainer. I had to buy one once, after an American friend sent me a packet of loose tea to try. What you call a tea timer, we call an egg timer.

I do love that my American friends can laugh at themselves. Moreover, that they're willing to demonstrate their misconceptions about British tea-making to a bemused British audience. As a lovely Californian lady proved during one notable Skype call.

With her web-cam carried into her kitchen, she made FIVE different cups of tea in ALL of the ways that she knew for how tea is brewed in Britain.

She also knew before she even began that none of them would come close. But there was entertainment to be had in this, and the amusement loudly proclaimed by all watching Britons made it all worth her while.

"So how DO the British make cups of tea?" She inquired, once the laughter had finally died down. This one is for her, and all who wish to know the unceremonious, boring truth.

Equipment Needed to Make a British Cup of Tea

I've used this lot three times just in writing this article!
Image: British Tea Making Set
Image: British Tea Making Set

Yes, I wiped down all surfaces, pots and kettle, but so would you if the entire internet was going to be inspecting your kitchen. I also tidied up the work-top, and arranged all items to make a pretty display for the photograph. Plus the box of tea-bags is on the side instead of in the cupboard.

But fundamentally, you're seeing what's really used here.

  • Kettle. We boil an electric kettle that plugs into the wall. We don't tend to infuse anything in purpose made cafetieres, nor boil water in cauldrons, pots or saucepans on the hob. A few select quotations from the Reddit forum r/BritishProblems will prove the point.
    • 'The kettle has broken. Having to boil water for tea in the pan. Feels wrong.' monkey_rench12
    • 'The kettle has been broken for 3 days... been forced to use a saucepan...' jackydoyle
    • 'My kettle has broken, now I have to boil my water in a pan like some animal.' lost118
    • 'My kettle is currently broken so I have to boil water on the hob like a Neanderthal.' RespawnTime
    Yes, r/BritishProblems does have a lot of posts about kettles breaking. We ARE British.
  • Mugs/Cups. We don't generally use nice, tiny cups from a matching tea-set, unless we have posh guests or something. We opt for the mugs that we each personally favor. A thin-rimmed, ceramic cup for my Mum, who likes that sort of thing; and a sodding great bucket of a thick mug for me, because that just about covers my caffeine-fueled needs for a good half an hour at a time.
  • Tea-Bags. That single box of tea is used all day long, 24/7.  No different varieties depending upon the time of day, or if Jupiter is in conjunction with Neptune, or the Queen's come to visit.  Sainsbury's, because that's the supermarket where we shop, and the home-branded stuff is cheaper. Fair Trade, because it's ethical and I have a say in this.  Red Label, because the entire household can agree on them tasting nice. 160, because 40 wouldn't last a day in this house.
  • Row of three lidded storage tubs. Their counterparts will be found on the work-surfaces of practically every native Briton's house ever.  One holds sugar; the next is filled with tea-bags; and the final one has instant coffee. Some British people do drink coffee, though every American I've ever known informs me that instant IS NOT coffee. Not nice coffee anyway.
  • Used Tea-Bag Holder.  It's missing from the picture, as I scrubbed clean its tannin stained depths minutes before this photograph was taken, so that no-one from the internet would judge me on my slovenliness. Then forgot to get it off the draining board for the picture. It's there to receive dripping tea-bags, because the alternative is to a) have a bin right next to the work-top, which is unhygienic; or b) trail fresh droplets of tea across the kitchen floor at least once an hour, until you're sick of having to wipe said floor.
  • Teaspoon.  Used for adding sugar, stirring, then taking out the tea-bag. I forgot to include it in my display.

Real British Tea Making Stuff

I couldn't find my brand of tea-bags on Amazon, but Yorkshire Tea is a familiar British brand and 100% ethically produced too.

How to Make Tea as the British Do

Back away now if you're looking for the whole ceremonial wonderfulness. Frankly how Americans think we make tea is far more interesting than the reality.
Image: British tea-bag being dropped into a cup
Image: British tea-bag being dropped into a cup

Step One: Switch on the kettle.

This is going on the assumption that there's water already in the kettle. There tends to be in a British household, unless the last round of cuppas emptied it.

Then depress the little lever beneath the handle (or press the button, depending upon the workings of your own electric kettle). I have to turn mine on at the wall too, as I usually switch off any plug sockets not currently being used. It saves on energy bills, as well as being more eco-friendly.

My kettle automatically switches off, when the water is boiled. But there are things we can be getting on with while we're waiting.

Step Two: Drop a tea-bag into each of the cups or mugs.

The exception here is if someone really prefers weak tea, then you could reuse the tea-bag from another person's cup. Or if poverty has struck to the point where you're ALL having to share tea-bags.

Image: Adding sugar in tea made the British way
Image: Adding sugar in tea made the B...
Image: Inside a cup of tea being made the British way
Image: Inside a cup of tea being made...

Step Three:  Add sugar to taste.

Everyone in Britain knows how much sugar they take in their tea.  Some people don't have any at all. Others have one or two, though it rarely goes above that, unless you're a student pulling an all-nighter and need the energy kick.

I have a friend who disdains sugar for sweeteners. This part is all own personal taste. No right nor wrong way to do it at all.

Incidentally, I take two sugars in my tea. Unless it's in that giant Sports Direct bucket mug, in which case I'll have three in order to produce the same taste.

Image: Pouring boiling water to make a British cup of tea
Image: Pouring boiling water to make ...
Image: Stirring a British made cup of tea
Image: Stirring a British made cup of...

Step Four:  Pour on boiling water.

As soon as the electric kettle switches itself off, I grab the handle and in goes the water. No teapot necessary. It just goes straight into the mug with the tea-bag and sugar.

Step Five:  Give it a vigorous stir with a teaspoon.

As that's pretty self-explanatory, I'd like to take this moment to thank my Mum.  No, really thank her, not award ceremony thank her.  It was hard work taking pictures AND making the tea, so she stepped in. Those haven't been my hands since the tea-bag went in. Plus I got a cup of tea out of it.

Image: Briton pours milk into a mug of tea
Image: Briton pours milk into a mug o...
Image: Stirring a cup of tea made the British way
Image: Stirring a cup of tea made the...

Step Six:  Add milk to taste.

I can tell you now that there are British people even now screaming in indignation and outrage at my lies. Nor are they the people who prefer creamer, or have no fridge, so have to make do with powdered whitener.

We have stumbled head-long into the great debate of the British nations (and the Irish too).  Milk in first or last?  Before the water, or after it?  Do you take the tea-bag out before you put the milk in, or leave it there?

You do it exactly as I've told you, step by step, like my mother taught me, and her mother before her, and every generation back, 'til we reach that glorious moment in history, when someone climbed a Welsh hillside to bring the first taste of tea to my great-whichever grandmother.

She no doubt reacted with a hearty 'diolch yn fawr', then was initiated into the Way of British Tea-making. Verily she put the milk in AFTER the water, but BEFORE she took the tea-bag out. This ancient and mystical Celtic wisdom was handed down through the ages from mother to daughter, until it was given to me and now that sacred lore has been passed unto you.

Yet some Britons persist in being wrong. Like uncivilized peasants, they'll put the milk in first, or won't let a drop of it touch a cup while a tea-bag is still floating inside. Ach y fi! If they comment here, don't let them lure you into their uncouth ways.

Step Seven: Stir the tea.

You'll be able to tell from the color, after a good stir, whether you've put in enough milk. If not, keep dropping small amounts in until a post-stir inspection tells you it now looks perfect.

Perfect color, in British tea, very much depends upon the person about to drink it. After some trial and error, you'll soon learn the color you want it to be.

Image: Briton making tea takes out the tea-bag
Image: Briton making tea takes out the tea-bag

Step Eight: Remove the Tea-Bag with your tea-spoon. Drop it into a tea-bag holder.

Look how clean my tea-bag holder is!  And how deep.  I have to giggle at those teeny-weeny tea-bag holders on sale in various tourist shops. What's the point of one which only holds a solitary used tea-bag? You're going to spend half of your day emptying the thing!

I can get about eight in mine, if I squidge them down really tightly. But generally, I empty it anyway, when the old tea-bags reach the top. I might as well, while I'm waiting for the kettle to boil.

Image: Perfect British made cup of tea
Image: Perfect British made cup of tea

Look!  Tea!  A proper cup of British tea made the British way in a British kitchen!  Precisely how it's probably being made right now in a million British homes, or was just made, or will be made in the next ten or fifteen minutes.

Is the British obsession with tea still a stereotype, if it's actually true?

Which leads us on to the big drum-roll moment:

Image: Jo Harrington drinking a nice British cup of tea
Image: Jo Harrington drinking a nice British cup of tea

Step Nine:  Drink the tea.

I hope you enjoyed your tutorial on how the British brew the perfect cup of tea. I've now been through four since I began writing this article, and I've now moved onto the cider. Because it's late, and we do drink cider too.

In between the cups of tea, obviously.

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Updated: 09/04/2014, JoHarrington
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pateluday on 06/26/2021

A revisit tells me that there are more creative tea enthusiasts in UK. Chai Tea in India has not evolved that much and has become a common beverage. Tea bags are not popular in homes here.

pateluday on 06/21/2019

We boil water first then add milk to boiling water add generous amount of leaf tea and then sugar. For more flavours we add a dash of ginger and cardamom pods...there is no limit to spices! On streets in India the beverage is hard boiled dark liquer. Believe me the latter in early morning is simply divine. I hope I have woken you from slumber after 4/5 years! Nice article. Thanks!

JoHarrington on 11/14/2014

I'm sure there will be many, many more occasions (daily ones even) to salute each other with buckets of tea. :)

Guest on 11/12/2014

Chin-chin. If I had my bucket here at home I would raise it in the general direction of the screen in your honour.

JoHarrington on 11/12/2014

*starts reading the comment* *realises there's no tea in my Sports Direct bucket mug* Be right back.

... And I'm back. LOL The rest of your comment is merely telling me that I did the right thing. *raises my mug in tribute to you*

Guest on 11/09/2014

By the way, you are right. Tea tastes better out of a supersize Sports Direct bucket. My colleague availed me of one a few weeks back and I haven't looked back since. It is over a pint of tanniny goodness, making it even bigger than my black pint swigger. So I now make myself a pint and a bucket every morning, another pair at lunchtime and a pint mid-afternoon to keep me going if I'm not leaving work at the same time as my husband.

JoHarrington on 09/28/2014

WordChazer - I don't know. I've only met one of them briefly, so I haven't done their genealogy. Perhaps both had grandparents from Boston, Massachusetts... I never know when to stop spelling that word.

JoHarrington on 09/28/2014

Frank - Isn't that the same as being born British?

Guest on 09/28/2014

Jo, how on EARTH did Ember manage to find two Brits who don't drink tea?! Well, she has two places she can run if she needs reassurance - your place and mine.

Frank, that sounds like an excellent idea as long as I don't have to spit it everywhere but can imbibe in the proper approved 'down the hatch' fashion traditionally employed in this locality for the dispatching of innocent mugs of tannin-laced beverage.

frankbeswick on 09/28/2014

How about being reincarnated a tea taster!

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