A short, tongue-in-cheek guide to the British national obsession: TEA! In answer to several questions I have received over the last three weeks about Sherlock and this beverage.
- why everyone in Sherlock is obsessed with tea.
- "tea" is more than just a drink: it's also the word used for the evening meal or a certain type of afternoon meal.
- the different ways of drinking tea in the UK
- how to write a good Sherlock fanfiction featuring this glorious brew.
But our journey into the amazing world of tea does not actually start with tea, it starts in the 17th century with a bean from the new world because no one loved coffee like the British.
No one Loved Coffee Like the British…
Some people will be shocked to know that the British fell in love with coffee before they even considered the current passionate love affair with tea.
Coffees had been a traditional drink in parts of Arabia for centuries but thanks to the ruthlessly sharp business sense of the East India Company and with some help from the Dutch, coffee started to flood the streets of Britain in the middle of the 16th century.
Coffee houses which served sprung up like snow drops – by 1675 there were more than 3000 coffeehouses in the country. Learned men would use these establishments to discuss politics and philosophy and it was not long before the authorities started to fear the subversive power of coffee. Some hot (coffee) houses of political debate were closed, and their patrons incarcerated, though the love affair with coffee could never be quashed.
But very soon the world slowly started to change…
During the 17th century the armadas of Spain and Portugal were slowly diminishing in power and Britain was beginning to exert herself as a world naval power. This made it easier for British trade ships to be escorted to far flung corners of the world to trade in exotic spices. Mostly the ships were after things like pepper and cinnamon but during the middle of the 17th century the East India Company had a brainwave to import tea from China.
In 1659 Thomas Rugge wrote: “Coffee, chocolate and a kind of drink called tee…sold in every street.”
Samuel Pepy wrote in 1660: “I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I had never had drunk before”
Tea slowly became almost as popular as coffee but unlike coffee it was considered a much less subversive drink.
By the 18th century, tea had invaded everyone’s home because the secure trade routes made Chinese tea cheap enough for the prosperous upper middle classes. Jane Austen’s characters all sat around drinking tea, The Bronte Sisters wrote about tea, tea started to pop up everywhere and you couldn’t escape from it.
By the 19th century Britain was well underway in forcibly colonizing India, and thus securing a steady supply of cheap tea. Britain also started to develop some iconic recipes of its own. 2nd Lord Grey is traditionally credited with the recipe for the original Earl Grey blend of tea, which is still drunk today. Tea had not just become a constant; it evolved into a national obsession during the Victorian era. There were manuals published on how to brew and serve tea. The Japanese tea ceremony may look extravagantly complicated but compared to the social nuances of the Victorian tea party…
So both coffee and tea are steeped in tradition – only we’re much less fussy about coffee now, maybe because the the rest of the world are better at making it, but we still love our tea!
Tea is the solution to everything.
Your house just got bombed? Have a cup of tea. England have lost the world cup…again? Have a cup of tea. Psychosomatic limp? Get your landlady to make you a cup of tea. Your nemesis is plotting your death? Invite him over for a cup of tea.
There are many different ways to drink tea in the UK. We are not a homogenous mass of people with poor dental hygiene.
The “working class” stereotype is of boiling hot tea in mug that is over sweetened and contains lots of milk. The “middle classes” are supposed to have fine bone chain tea sets: with cups, saucers, little pots of sugar, a mini milk jug and these tiny silver spoons to stir with. Personally I've be happy with Sherlock's tea set, it's patriotic.
John drinks his tea from a mug but this does not mean he’s working class. This is a very homely informal way of drinking the national beverage and is probably what just about everyone does. Drinking tea out of a mug is what people do with their friends, their co-workers and their family or just alone.
John probably got his tea drinking habits from being a doctor (and being in the army). Trust me doctors drink copious amounts of tea all the time: at work, at home, between surgical cases, between sucking blood out of people’s veins…it’s a catastrophe when the doctor’s mess runs out of tea bags. They also drink copious amounts of coffee as well. Imagine trying to stay awake all night without the help of caffine.
When Moriarty comes to call, Sherlock makes sure to get out the good china (he has such a lovely tea set) to receive his nemesis. This is the more formal way to drink tea. Sherlock is inviting his nemesis in and like any polite host, he must offer refreshments but the entire tea set is there as a prop, something both to impress but also to stop Moriarty from feeling too comfortable.
In the same way, the tea set at Buckingham Palace in ASIB was quite a formal set up, though in this case it is to be expected and not solely there to make Sherlock feel uncomfortable.
By the way: Mycroft’s phrase “I’ll be mother,” merely means “I’m going to pour the tea.”
When Mycroft has tea at his gentleman’s club, obviously it’s going to be from a cup and saucer, such a classy establishment probably hasn’t heard of the proverbial mug, though it is quite possible Mycroft has a favourite mug at home (with The British Government printed across the side!).
How to make the Perfect Cuppa (or what John and Sherlock already know but you might not)
(Tip: if your tea looks like this - you're holding the wrong kind of tea party)
One particularly message really got me thinking:
Anonymous asked: I love your metas and I take a lot of them to heart when I'm writing. Now I have an question. I've come to learn that tea is a very touchy subject and the only thing that have had people send me rude comments for (personally I think I've made worse cultural errors in my ignorance, but that perhaps shows how ignorant I actually am). In canon there is a lot of mentionings of coffee but hardly any of tea (we know how they take their coffee, but not their tea etc.) Do you have a theory as to why?
I’m sorry tea has indirectly caused you unhappiness. It is by and large a wonderful drink. The people who have left rude comments on your blog are not worth listening to.
In answer to your question: BBC Sherlock was made very much for British audiences. There are certain idioms, phrases, even puns that are very British and may give the rest of the world the impression that we are all barmy.
Most people in Britain know how to make tea, it’s like an essential life skill, therefore the writers have never thought to go into detail about tea making – or even what the characters' tea preferences are. Tea references in Sherlock are actually ubiquitous, but they don’t all contain the word tea:
For example: John sarcastically pre-empting the response at Baskerville Army Base: “oh come in the kettle’s just boiled.”
No one thinks to explain these references because in the UK we all get them.
Some Essential Briticisms involving Tea
1. In the UK we do not boil kettles on stoves anymore. Jane Austen's servants might have made tea on a "stove" but that was the 18th century. In fact we don't even call the bit where you cook things on the "stove" it's a "hob". Hobs can be gas or electric but they are used for cooking not tea making. We almost always use electric kettles, I actually haven't seen a non-electric kettle since I was a very young child and even then that belonged to my grandmother.
2. Tea comes in many different varieties made by many different companies. When I talk about tea I mean black tea, not green tea or herbal tea or or fruit tea or ice(d) tea or Chinese tea. Black tea is by far the most common type of tea drunk in the UK. Most of it comes ground up in tea bags and not as loose leaves, although you can still get tea leaves. For a certain class of people only loose tea leaves will suffice, for the rest of us commoners - tea bags will do.
3. Many different blends of black tea appear on our supermarket shelves including but not limited to Earl Grey, Ceylon, Redbush, Everyday Tea (yes it's a real blend from Twinings), Assam, Yorkshire Tea, English Breakfast Tea, Lady Grey. It's impossible to generalize about who drinks what when and where. Some people have a favourite they always stick to, others drink different blends of tea at different times of the day and there are eccentric people out there who will vary their tea blend according to the phases of the moon.
4. Tetley, Twinings (I am offended that Microsoft word has Twinnings as a real word but not Twinings!), Typhoo, PG, Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate etc are brands not types of tea. Twinings is considered quite middle class and they do a nice range of different blends including herbal teas and specialty teas. Clippers does organic teas, which are slightly more expensive than average but come in nice packaging. Tetley, PG and Typhoo are less posh but taste just as nice in my opinion. They are the type of teas that everyone can afford and enjoy - a sort of everyday tea for the everyday Brit.
5. Tea in this county is traditionally drunk hot with or without milk and sugar. There are some people who like use lemon and honey instead, they are not the norm.
6. Cream does not go in tea. Cream tea does not literally mean tea with cream in it. The term cream tea specifically refers to scones with clotted cream and jam that are served with tea. It's a famous product of Devon and Cornwall.
7. Tea can be drunk at any time of the day or night. You do not have wait until tea time (and tea time does not actually mean it's tea time).
Tea and names for the different Meals of the Day
"Tea" in Britain can also mean the evening meal. It's part of the lexicon for most of Northern England and many more "working class" communities in the South. Tea time means it's time for the evening meal, there usually is actual tea but that's not really the point. In these communities the meal in the middle of day is often called dinner not lunch, because that would be the largest and most filling meal for a traditional labourer. Breakfast is still breakfast in case anyone is desperate to know.
For the middle/upper classes they traditionally had not three but four meals: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner (and perhaps supper just before bed). "High Tea" or afternoon tea is an English tradition dating back to the 19th century. Dinner, the evening meal, was traditionally served very late in the evening because this gave the rich a chance to show off their ability to light their homes with either candles or electricity. Lunch was around midday, so there would be around seven hours between the two meals. The solution was afternoon tea taken in the early afternoon around three or four o'clock.
Actual tea is a must but this "meal" can also be quite substantial in terms of food. The food is generally designed to be eaten with the fingers - i.e. small cakes, finger sandwiches etc. Savoury and sweet foodstuffs are normally available, though more sweet than savoury.
In reality most of us work far too hard to have a break in the middle of the afternoon to eat finger foods, so afternoon tea as an facet of people's lives has almost dwindled away.
You can still have afternoon tea in a lot of the upmarket hotels in Britain. Claridges does a good one, so does the Savoy.
Welcome to Britain: where we have freedom of speech, religion, press etc. but if you make your tea slightly differently to everyone else you will be persecuted.
To help out fanfic writers who are afraid of being culturally ignorant or being branded a heathen: here’s how to make a conformist cup of tea John style :
Boil the kettle (you need boiling water and I mean boiling. Sherlock wouldn’t even serve the man who’s going to burn his heart out lukewarm tea.)
Dump a tea bag in the mug (before you add the water – seriously it has to be in that order or else you might be metaphorically burnt at the stake)
Add the water
Pull the tea bag out before the water gets too dark (ideally within 1-2 minutes)
Ask the people you are making tea for whether they want:
Milk (if so add a dash of milk – not half a pint. Most people have milk in their tea, it’s okay to add some if you don’t know what they want)
Sugar (this comes in spoons or cubes, but mostly spoons. Most people have one or two, if they have three you are entitled to look at them questioningly, if they want more than five they are better off drinking lucozade instead)
Add your own milk/sugar
Drink it when it’s hot – cold tea is vile.
NB: In terms of Ice(d) tea some supermarkets sell it with the fruit juices. When someone wants a cup of tea they do not expect a glass of clear brown liquid with ice cubes floating in it.
Note: I used to like adding milk in first as a child until I was summarily scolded and forced to make tea the conformist way. Apparently I am not the only non-conformist out there! People who add milk first UNITE! We are not a heathens or of low-breeding. You can understand how serious the British take their tea if we will argue over the when to add milk.
How to make a conformist cup of tea for your arch-enemy, obsessive psychopaths, and/or other important guests:
Get out the good china (you ideally should have a matching tea set like Sherlock; the electric kettle does not count as part of the set. Non-matching items are sort of okay but be prepared for condescending/sarcastic remarks about how interesting your tea set is)
Boil the kettle
Use some of the water to warm the tea pot and then discard this
Add loose tea leaves (or a tea bag) to the empty tea pot (kettle was a massive typo)
Pour in the hot water and leave to brew ideally for between 2-5 minutes (do not over brew your tea, it will taste vile).
Pour tea into the cups through a strainer (its bad practice to allow any bits to enter the tea)
Allow your guest to add their own milk and sugar (because seriously you’ve been doing all the work thus far).
Stir your tea silently with a spoon. Do not stick your little finger out when lifting up the cup, it is a myth that high born ladies used to this, they didn’t, because frankly it makes you look ridiculous.
Smile politely or remain impassive at any ensuing death threats – remember tea solves everything eventually.
Do Brits Drink Coffee?
Lestrade does, he apparently likes the cafe bought variety, and plenty of us drink coffee as well as tea in our homes. It is considered polite to offer both to guests if you have them.
Starbucks is very popular in the UK, though part of this may be aggressive capitalism. It is definitely not farfetched to have John and Sherlock drinking coffee. In fact we already know what Sherlock’s coffee preferences are.
For readers in other nations we also drink hot chocolate, malt drinks like Horlicks, fruit juice and tonnes of alcohol. Tea may be the solution to everything but you won't be dehydrated if you don't want to drink it.
Got better tea tips than I do? Is this article so utterly obvious that you are insulted it even exists? Does this meta contain so many mistakes that you'd like to cyber-stab me with pitchfork? Everyone is welcome to leave their comments below.