The Levels of Tea Service

Afternoon tea has become the catch-all term for any type of tea service. Linguists will say that technically afternoon tea is just any cup of tea you drink after 12:00 pm, but where’s the fun in that stuffy answer?

When you visit a tearoom, there are usually three “levels” of tea service available. The tea drink itself is always a feature; the levels refer to the nibbles served alongside your hot beverage. You can order a cream tea, an afternoon tea, or a high tea. Each one has a different amount and style of sweets or savories, and for authenticity, make sure you know what to expect when you order which one of the three.

Cream Tea

This is considered the lowest tier (no pun intended) of tea service, consisting only of scones, cream, and jam or other spreads…hence the name “cream tea”.  It’s the perfect little repast from the hustle and bustle of the work day. A cream tea is substantial enough to curb your midday hunger, but not so filling that you’ll spoil your dinner.

Cream tea service at Blenheim Palace, Oxford, England

Cream tea service at Blenheim Palace, Oxford, England

One of my favorite things to do while I lived in England was to visit a tearoom in every city, town, or village I visited and partake in a cream tea.

Afternoon Tea

Ah, the umbrella term Americans use to describe all three levels of tea service. Afternoon tea–the true, traditional afternoon tea service–consists of finger sandwiches or light savories, scones and cream/jam/curd/etc, and small treats or cakes. This is the service that most American tearooms and hotels offer to guests. Because there is just a higher quantity of food and there is the finger sandwich course, afternoon tea can replace a full meal (I usually schedule mine as a late lunch) or tide you over until a really late dinner.

Afternoon tea at the Cavendish London Hotel

Afternoon tea at the Cavendish London Hotel

A typical variation of afternoon tea is the celebration or champagne tea. It’s exactly what it sounds like: afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne in addition to your tea beverage. A great excuse to drink before 5:00 pm!

High Tea

High tea is definitely a full meal. Traditionally served at the end of a working class day, high tea has more substantial food such as meat pies, vegetables, quiche, and heavy baked goods possible in addition to the scone and dessert courses. But nowadays high tea is more of a multi-course afternoon tea with the addition of heavier foods rather than the family meal it used to be. What used to be exclusive to the working class of Britain has been taken over and changed into a more elite social gathering. High tea was not meant to be a dainty, china plated affair; it was the meal served to replenish after a long hard day of manual labor.

High tea service

High tea service

So whatever your level of hunger, sophistication, or craving for sweets, there is a tea meal service for you. Just make sure you order the right service for your appetite’s size!

2 comments on “The Levels of Tea Service

  1. Elizabeth


    I would like to make it my goal to have every afternoon tea I can! I live in Los Angeles and uf you want to be my tea buddy, I would be grateful for the company. I went to the ye old kings head and hated it except for the clotted cream. I could not eat the sandwiches and the scone wasn’t my cup of tea. Have you been to the one in san francisco by ghiradelli square called crown and crumpet or something? It was amazing! I’m from Alabama where afternoon tea was common among southern belles. We had the best afternoon tea room which has now closed down. Sadly, I haven’t found anything in L.A. to compare but I have plenty of places yet to try. I’ve only been to ye old king’s head, the scarlet tea room, chado, and one other pasadena one with rose in the name. Have you tried Jose Garces’ Tres afternoon tea? It looks like weird science in a good way. I would be missing my scones, though but what the heck. I need to find a soft and super moist scone like the one in san fran. I was told the secret is folding in chuncks of very cold butter.

    1. Jenna

      I would love to have a tea buddy! Right now I’ve only been going with my mom so I can pretty much predict exactly what she will and will not like haha.

      My dream scone that I will spend my life trying to replicate was from a tearoom/cafe in Oxford, England called The Rose. It was right next door to my college and was worth skipping lunch to indulge in one of their scones. Most of my scones are based on the British way of making scones, so they use mostly heavy whipping cream to get that creamy, moist, addicting taste.

      I’d love to hear what you thought about the other tearooms!

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