It’s hard to find a proper cup of tea in San Francisco. I’m here visiting family, and every time I try to get a cuppa, it’s not quite the same as it is in the UK. Which is funny, because I never drank much tea when I lived here. In fact, I had a lot to learn about British tea culture when I first moved to London. It’s a (very embarrassing) story from my early expat life…

Tea in London

The first time I ordered a tea in London was at a cafe in Knightsbridge. I will never forget it. Not because it was the best tea I ever had. Far from it. It was because it was the most difficult-to-order tea I’ve ever had.

This was primarily due to the fact that, as an American, I walked up to the counter and ordered a “hot tea”. In the US, if you order a “tea” you get an iced tea, so if you want a proper cup of tea the way British people drink it, you have to specify that you want it hot.

The problem with this strategy is that in the UK, you would never order a “hot” tea, because in Britain the situation is exactly the opposite. As such, the girl behind the counter assumed I had a funny foreign accent and was ordering a latte (latte, hot-tea…I kinda get where she was coming from).

When she handed me the latte, I looked at it in confusion and told her that I had ordered a hot tea. At that point it was her turn to be confused, and after an exercise in enunciation, she turned around and made me a cup of tea.

Tea in London

Which is when the next problem arose. When you order a hot tea in the US, the person taking your order asks what kind of tea you want. I was expecting the same in London. Not so. I learned when the girl brought me a cup of English Breakfast tea that if you order a tea (hot or not) in London, you get English Breakfast tea. If you want something else, you had better explicitly state it before your server runs off.

When she brought me the tea, I again looked at it in confusion. I wanted a chamomile tea. Why hadn’t she asked? I told her as much, and I won’t venture a guess as to what she was thinking when she turned to make yet another drink for me. But I will say that I was thankful that I could watch her make my third and final beverage, because otherwise I’m sure there would have been a bit more than just tea in the cup.

One would think that after this episode my expat self would have learned to order tea properly. But no. The next time I ordered a hot tea was at a Starbucks in Marylebone, when the server understood my order as coffee (coffee, hot-tea, I kinda get where he was coming from). At least this time I knew to preface my corrected order with a “chamomile” before he ran off to brew me a breakfast tea.

Tea in London

After a few more failed attempts, I finally got the hang of it. A year later, I could walk into a coffee shop and order a tea like a pro (who knew it was so easy?). And I didn’t stop there. I branched out into cream tea—tea with scones—and afternoon tea, which is pretty much the best kind of tea (even if the tea is mostly an afterthought). I even got myself an electric kettle and learned how to make tea at home (who knew it was so easy?).

Tea in London

Back here in San Francisco, I’ve experienced the reverse culture shock of forgetting to add the word “hot” to my order, or asking for a “tea” and wondering why they want to know what kind (duh, it’s breakfast tea).

As frustrating as these experiences can be for expats, when I look back on how much I struggled to do something as simple as order a cup of tea when I first moved to London, I have to appreciate that I even survived. Renting a flat, navigating the immigration system, and applying for British citizenship were all a lot more complicated than that first cup of tea.

Which is why I think I’ll stick to coffee in San Francisco. Then again, that’s another beverage that causes a world of confusion for American expats living in London (hint: in the UK, there’s no such thing as ordering the beverage we call a “coffee” in the US)…

35 Comments on Lady Learns the British Tea Culture

  1. Drinking tea for many English people is one of the greatest pleasures of the day. If nothing else, brewing a pot of tea forces you to take a break for a while and to savour the delicate taste of a good tea.

    You can become fascinated by drinking tea, particularly if you begin sampling the amazing range of teas from around the world produced by a company such as Twinings.

    On the whole, drinking tea is healthy, and much much cheaper than most drinks, particularly those at all alcoholic.

  2. I remember the first time I ordered tea in the UK, too. It was at a kind of highway rast station – we were on the way through the UK to Ireland. I think I ordered “Black tea with milk” like I would do here in Austria, which means any kind of orange pekoe and a tiny, tiny pot of milk (just a little slug). Ok I somehow got a huge cup of tea but no milk, it took us some time to realise there were huge pots of milk on every table.
    Amateurs 🙂 But after two month in Ireland and countless pots of tea we got the hang of it.

  3. Thank you for this post! My husband and I are coming to London for a visit from the States in a few weeks and this is good to know! I have a question about afternoon tea…sorry if it is silly…do you just order afternoon tea and they will bring you a basic English breakfast tea with whatever scones, etc they have or do you have to order specifics for the tea and the snacks? I just want to be prepared. I’d rather ask silly questions here than ask once I’m there 🙂 Thanks!

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad you found it helpful. At afternoon tea, you order whatever kind of tea you want from a tea menu, and the rest is usually set. Sometimes there are a couple of different choices for food, but usually it’s just a choice of tea (and whether or not you want champagne!).

  4. Very interesting article! Although I have never ordered tea in England I remember my confusion when I was ordering coffee in the US. I am European and the coffee in Europe is usually espresso. How surprised I was to find out that in North America it is not and also there are many different types of coffee with milk – latte, cappuccino, macchiato, Americano… 🙂

  5. This made me chuckle Julie – I can totally imagine how this happened! I took a friend to brunch a while ago who was visiting from the US – she had a similar issue when she ordered eggs – apparently in the US, they routinely ask how you want them done? So she was really shocked when it came out with a runny yolk and the waitress looked less than impressed when she was asked to take it back!

  6. That’s a very interesting story, Julie! Culture shock is something we kind of expect to happen, but the reverse is extremely frustrating. Every time I go back home (well, my other home) I find myself in some weird situations. But, rather than reverse culture shock, what really gets me down is when people, after hearing my accent, ask “you’re not from here, right?”.

  7. Hi Julie, this happened in reverse to me actually, back in Canada many years ago. Like the Brits we say tea for the ‘hot’ kind, and if you wanted iced tea you would have to ask for that specifically, if it was even available. So one day when I was working my way through school at a restaurant in Niagara Falls, a large group of Southern ladies from the US came in and all of them ordered ‘tea’. I got all of the individual pots, cups and saucers ready with creamers and sugar and came out with a huge tray. They looked at it and one said ‘No, we ordered TEA!’ We stared at each other, both very confused, until it finally came out that they wanted iced tea. And then just a couple months ago I was in a cafe in Covent Garden and heard two American ladies at their table asking if the tea was hot or cold – the server was confused and wondered why they would think he would serve the tea cold! I kind of chuckled on my way out, but at least they asked before ordering!

  8. Hmm so how would you order iced tea in London? Come to think of it, I never tried ordering tea while I was in the US nor in London. I used to live in Seattle and drank mostly coffee while I was there. Here in Korea they will usually ask you what flavor tea you would like and whether you want it hot or iced. My only gripe is that they will usually charge extra for ice!

  9. When I arrived in Florida and asked for a cup of tea for breakfast, (as opposed to iced tea) I was given a mug of hot water and a tea bag on the saucer. I honestly just stared at it and then the waitress..
    I did try iced tea once and it was exactly as it is described. Cold tea. Yuck!! I don’t think you’ll find many English people drinking iced tea. IMHO. 🙂

  10. It shouldn’t be that difficult to get a cup of tea! But well done for persevering…. I loved this article and included it in my Expat Carnival for Expats Guide to Coffee and Tea….

  11. Oh gosh, coffee was so confusing for me when I moved to London. I had no idea what a flat white or Americano was, I was just trying to get a cup of my “normal” coffee. I still try to go to Starbucks and order filter coffee whenever I can, although I have branched out a bit! 😉

  12. How did you end up obtaining uk citizenship? I’ve been looking into it and through the way of a work visa, seems near impossible.
    I’d love to move to England permanently, and would love any advice you have! Maybe a previous blogpost I missed?
    Thank you!! xx

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