Tea Party Etiquette Interview

Cup and saucer
Tea parties are coming back in fashion.

To learn about tea party etiquette, LoveToKnow Party asked Kerri M. Lee, a Certified Tea Sommelier through the Tea Association of Canada and George Brown College, for her expert advice. She is the owner of Lee-Middleton Gourmet Tea, an online specialty tea retailer. Ms. Lee is an avid tea drinker herself, and strives to bring premium loose-leaf tea back to the forefront of our culture. She often speaks to groups small and large about the various types of tea and preparation methods, the history of tea and the health benefits of tea.

About Tea Parties

LoveToKnow: Are tea parties generally formal affairs?

Kerri M. Lee: It used to be that an afternoon tea party was very formal. This is in part because the tradition of afternoon tea was started by Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, back in the 1840s as a way to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. It was enjoyed by mainly the upper class, as tea was not an affordable luxury for the working class back then. Although many establishments today still honor the British heritage of afternoon tea and conduct it in a formal manner, there is a new wave of establishments starting to crop up, promoting tea in a less traditional and more "youthful" way.

LTK: What is the best time of day for a tea party?

KML: Generally a tea party would be held sometime between 2 and 4 p.m. Most tea rooms now are open from 11 a.m. onwards and many people enjoy having lunch in a tea room at an earlier hour, say 12 or 1 p.m. Also, some establishments serve a proper high tea, which is actually a full meal and would be served at a later hour, perhaps from 5 to 7 p.m.

Tea Party Dress Code

LTK: Is there a dress code associated with tea parties?

KML: If you are going to a traditional afternoon tea, it would be considered proper for you to dress in business attire or something more formal. Hats are often worn, but are not necessary. It really depends on what you are comfortable with. Sometimes it's nice to have an excuse to get all dressed up and wear a hat and gloves, and it can add to the fun of afternoon tea.

You will often see people more casually dressed, however. Your attire should be in part dictated by the place you will be having afternoon tea. If you have been invited somewhere you have not been and you're not sure how to dress, it would be appropriate for you to ask the person who invited you or call the establishment to find out what dress code is expected.

Tea Party Etiquette for Hosts

LTK: Is there a proper way to prepare and serve tea? Which varieties would you recommend?

KML: If you are planning a tea party at home, you should plan to serve at least three varieties of tea. How many you serve may be dictated by how many teapots you have. It's always nice to give your guests variety. You should have an afternoon or breakfast blend of black tea with no flavoring, an Earl Grey or Vanilla Earl Grey for a twist on the traditional, a green tea of some kind and perhaps an herbal tea for anyone who wishes to avoid caffeine. For your herbal tea choice, you may want to include a Rooibos tea (an herbal tea from South Africa). There are many flavors of Rooibos available and something with a bit of sweetness, like Vanilla or Crème Caramel, would pair nicely with desserts.

To prepare the tea, make sure you have a good kettle or two, a variety of teapots, some good quality tea and purified water. Be aware of water temperature and steeping times required for the variety of teas you will be serving (this information should be on the packaging or you can ask your tea vendor for instructions). Warm the pots first with a little bit of hot water, and then use an infuser for loose tea, or put teabags right into your pot. After you have prepared the tea and removed the infuser or teabags, bring your teapots to the table where your guests are. It is a nice touch to have a tea warmer under your teapots to keep the tea warm between servings. Each guest should be served the tea of his or her choice by the host.

Have milk and sugar available for your guests, and make sure you refill your pots when they are getting low; you don't want to run out of tea at your tea party! It's a safe bet to allow for at least a half pot of tea per guest for a six-cup teapot.

LTK: What types of food can be offered?

KML: For a traditional afternoon tea, it would be expected that you would serve finger sandwiches, scones with Devonshire cream and preserves, and a variety of dessert squares. However, there are many books on the market that will give you all sorts of ideas for a more modern approach to afternoon tea. Really, the choices are limitless as you can find a type of tea to pair with almost any dish you want to serve. If you wanted to, you could have a tea party where you serve a variety of Indian dishes and pair them with teas from that region (Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiri). You could serve sushi and pair that with some fine Japanese teas. The possibilities are endless; be creative!

Etiquette for Guests

LTK: What are the basic rules of tea party etiquette for guests?

KML: Every culture has its own traditions and rules of etiquette regarding tea. For a British style afternoon tea, some of the etiquette tips include holding the teacup without having your pinkie up (despite the popular belief that your pinkie should be up) and not looking over the edge of your teacup while you are sipping, but rather looking into your teacup. Whether or not you put the milk in the cup first is completely up to you. Also, be sure not to add milk and lemon to your tea at the same time.

The most important thing of all is to enjoy the time you spend together. Sharing tea is a wonderful tradition and a great way to relax and catch up with friends and family. Have fun and don't get too caught up in the details!

More From Kerri M. Lee

To learn more about tea and all of the varieties of loose leaf tea that are available, check out Kerri M. Lee here, or follow her on Twitter.

Tea Party Etiquette Interview