Not to be confused with the enjoyment of a simple cup of tea, the traditional English Tea service has a long history dating back to the mid-1800s, when Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, perhaps unintentionally introduced it.
As anyone who has ever traveled through Spain on an empty stomach knows, Europeans love to kick off dinner at the tender hour of most Americans’ bedtime, so the duchess began taking a light meal with her tea in the afternoon to stave off hunger. The idea proved popular among the Brits and gradually evolved into the more elaborate daily ritual that we now associate with the afternoon tea service, which includes finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and elegant desserts. More than just an afternoon snack, the afternoon tea service was also viewed as a social gathering for family and friends to catch up on news and, presumably, gossip.
Alcohol hasn’t always been a part of the afternoon tea service, and, in fact, tea rooms proliferated in the U.S. during Prohibition. However, some have noted that, since teacups were a sneaky way to sip bootlegged spirits on the down low during this time, this is perhaps when the boozy accompaniment was born. We now associate a tall flute of sparkling wine as a typical addition to the traditional tea ritual.
But some London trailblazers are taking this time-honored tradition to new heights, with creative twists and unexpected turns, elevating the stuffy afternoon tea service to a sexier, more modern habit.
Not Your Grandma’s Tea Service
Few tea services compare to the G & Tea Experience, set in the glamorous, 1930s-era Manetta’s Bar at the Flemings Mayfair hotel. A play on the ubiquitous Gin and Tonic cocktail, this heady service includes a selection of premium teas, a stunning spread of sweets and pastries, and — you guessed it — a guided tasting of several different styles of gins, like Whitley Neill Raspberry Gin, Salcombe Gin Rosé, and Nicholson London Dry Gin. If guests are up for it, they can also opt for a special tea-themed gin cocktail made as an add-on.
“For us at Flemings Mayfair, we wanted to offer guests something a little different to the standard afternoon tea experience, and partnering with the East India Tea Company to create our refreshing cocktails felt like the perfect way to do this,” says Henrik Muehle, managing director of Flemings Mayfair. “We think of it as an elevated cream tea, topped off with delicious gin cocktails.”
Hotel Café Royal in London’s Soho area is no stranger to the traditional afternoon tea service, which it has been serving for decades. “The late 19th and early 20th century marked the highpoint of afternoon tea’s splendour, with all the most fashionable people going to the most fashionable hotels to enjoy the most sophisticated fare,” says Jacob Pinder, manager of Cake & Bubbles, the hotel’s on-site restaurant offering an elaborate afternoon tea service. “Hotel Café Royal was very much at the center of this vibrant culture, attracting the likes of Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Noel Coward.”
Café Royal has consistently offered leveled-up tea experiences, such as the Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition in 2021, in which guests were taken on an immersive tea journey through some of the artist’s most famous works. Today, the iconic hotel offers the extravagant Cake & Bubbles experience created by Michelin-starred Spanish chef Albert Adrià, of the now-closed Michelin-starred Tickets Restaurant in Barcelona.
“Cakes & Bubbles is Albert Adrià’s first brick-and-mortar site outside Spain and is defined by the chef as a dessert experience where diners are invited to enjoy all-day dining and a parade of exceptional desserts alongside a curated selection of Champagnes and sparkling wines,” Pinder explains.
The desserts here are truly breathtaking (“The Rose,” which features a sphere of lychee, rosewater, and raspberry, served atop a fresh-cut, blood red rose, is a sight to behold), matched only by the exciting selection of Champagnes and sparkling wines that go beyond the usual suspects, including Cava, Crémant, English bubbles, and alcohol-free sparkling wines.
Indigo at Covent Garden’s One Aldwych has introduced a whimsical take on the afternoon tea, with its Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea, which includes a lineup of imaginative savory and sweet treats alongside the usual selection of sparkling wines as well as “fizzy lifting drinks” and creative cocktails like the “Strawberry Juice Water Pistol Punch,” made with vodka, strawberry purée, sweet vermouth, Aperol, Electric Bitters, and lemonade.
London cult favorite Lyaness at Southbank’s Sea Containers offers a “Spirited Tea” experience, which features a selection of teas, cakes, and savories, along with three paired cocktails using Lyaness’s unusual signature ingredients like galangal, seeded vermouth, apple reduction, rose, and cacao.
Others, like Mr. Fogg’s House of Botanicals in Fitzrovia, have done away with the “tea” part of afternoon tea altogether, opting instead for an entirely boozy version. Theirs is called “Tipsy Tea” and includes one of several “teapot cocktails” with playful names like “A Roaring Brew” and “A Tea-sing Treat,” served with a spread of plant-based nibbles nestled inside a birdcage.
Are Americans Tea-Totalers?
So why hasn’t this tradition caught on in the U.S.? Americans love caffeine, a good spread of nosh, a happy-hour tipple, and a round of gossip. What gives?
“In Britain, we have a cold and wet climate, so a nice warm drink is part of an everyday necessity,” says Muehle. Others suggest that it’s because key ingredients in a great afternoon tea service — like premium loose-leaf teas and clotted cream — aren’t as readily available to consumers stateside as they are abroad.
Muehle notes that things do appear to be changing in the US.: “In 2019, the U.S. had 1,400 tearooms, which dropped to 1,280 by the end of 2020 and is now growing again, at 1,290 nationwide afternoon tea venues,” he says.
Perhaps as the tea service continues to evolve, so, too, will Americans’ interest in partaking in this relaxing, time-honored tradition. The addition of booze might help with that.
Creating your own inspired afternoon tea ritual at home is easier than you think, as long as you avoid the lukewarm water and plate of lemon slices that are so often served alongside a cup of tea in our country. The British pros share their best tips.
Step 1: Start with the best ingredients.
“Undoubtedly, the quality and freshness of the tea is paramount,” says Muehle. “We recommend loose-leaf tea as it gets the best extraction, is naturally better quality, and has no danger of being influenced by a bad quality bag; though, having said that, pyramid tea bags are equally decent nowadays and are in fact loose leaf tea, but portioned.”
According to Meuhle, the water should also be fresh, ideally filtered, and only boiled once to the correct temperature — 95 degrees Celsius for black tea, and slightly colder for delicate teas like white or green.
Step 2: Make the perfect pot of tea.
Once you’ve got top-quality tea and proper water, brew the tea carefully. Length of time to steep is key — five minutes maximum for black teas and two to three minutes for green and white.
According to William Hanson, director of The English Manner and leader of the Afternoon Tea Etiquette Experiences at Hotel Café Royal, if you’re having milk, it should be cold; if adding sugar, it should be white. So much for all the steamed milk and raw sugar that every coffee shop in America seems to push.
Step 3: Keep the food simple — or leave it to the pros.
“Don’t try to compete with the hotels,” says Hanson. “Unless you are a highly qualified pastry chef, of course! When at home, stick to one large cake that you can portion up to individual guests. It’s much easier — and how they do it in the royal household, too.”
If you’re not a baker, Muehel adds that “several companies can organize and deliver the foodie-bits so that you have everything you need.”
Step 4: Level it up.
Most importantly, add on your boozy flair, like an expertly crafted Gin and Tonic or a crisp glass of English sparkling wine. Or, get totally meta and whip up a creative tea-based cocktail to sip alongside your cuppa.