Why do we drink afternoon tea?
TCM says that drinking tea late afternoon allows best absorption.
Historically, the emergence and popularity of the afternoon tea was related to later dinners past sunset, made popular by the invention and spread of the technology of the electric light which was first invented in 1802.
The royalties would be one of the few to enjoy such technology and privileges.
With a later dinner, there was a long gap between lunch and dinner, and energy usually dipped in the mid afternoon. Anne, the 7th Duchess of Braford, started asking for tea and snacks served to her private room when she grew hungry mid afternoon. Then she started inviting her female fellow royalties and aristocrat friends to her gathering, usually held in private in her bedroom or drawing room. Gradually, it became a gathering of royalties during the hour of afternoon tea, and this spread amongst other royalties.
Higher attendance necessitated the afternoon tea gatherings to be held in a larger space, and gardens during summer were usual choice of the afternoon tea gatherings. Out of the private spaces of female royalties into the open, male members of the royalties started attending these garden tea gatherings in the mid afternoon.
What was trendy in the courts was emulated in the high society too. By the filing of the patent by Thomas Edison of the invention of the electric bulb in the late 19th century, afternoon tea had become a social event when the rich and influential women of high society would change into gowns worn specially for afternoon tea gatherings. These gowns, different from their usual attire, had a looser and more casual style, commensurate with the more casual nature of this social event, which also doubled up as a time for gossipping, socialising and making impressions on the opposite sex. The tea gowns could also feature tighter sleeves to allow easier pouring of tea and snacking of the scones and pastries served together with the tea.
The rich and influential immortalised their exquisite afternoon tea gatherings in oil paintings, as they pose dressed in their finest tea gowns of fine embroidery against satin pillows holding their collection of fine china and teaware.
Dressing for afternoon tea was not to be taken lightly. In fact, Marie Antoinette who was the last queen of France served the different Chinese teas in her collection according to how her guests wore. The best dressed got the best Chinese tea.
The afternoon tea is also known as low tea. This holds a different idea from high tea, which meant dinner during the time of Industrial Revolution when the men came home to the first full meal of the day after a day of work. The words "high" and "low" probably meant the height of the table - tables for afternoon tea used in the gardens are often low, and high tea being dinner is served at the usual dinner table which is higher. The two words could also be understood as the intensity of the food, with low tea (afternoon tea) served with snacks and tea, and high tea served as a main meal.
Why did English royalties not serve coffee but tea during afternoon tea? This royal and social preference tranced back 200 years earlier to Catherine of Braganza, who was princess of first King of Portugal. She was married to English King Charles II in 1662 (start of the Qing dynasty in China). This marriage was of course political, and financial. The English royal coffer was poor during his time, weakened by the English civil war fought by his father Charles I and with the Dutch during his time. Portugal was rich and the marriage contract include trading rights in colonies of Portugal and lots of money. The princess, being a avid tea lover who started to enjoy tea brought from China by the Portugese trade missions, brought along chests of tea from China, primarily from Fujian province - probably lapsang souchong red tea and old style roasted tea from Wuyi Mountain (武夷山) (known as bohea tea then - bohea being the Hokkein pronuication of Wuyi). Being the queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, her preference for tea was stylish amongst the royalties and high society, and tea drinking became a social novelty of class.
During her marriage, coffee was only loosely traded by the various empires, from Arabia which controlled its cultivation and sale. It was 1702 when coffee was successfully cultivated in Java, Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company, which then led to the mass cultivation by the various colonial masters within their respective colonies.
The Boston Tea Party of 16th December 1773 at the port of Boston further sealed the popularity of tea over coffee. After the discovery of America, England provided supplies, including tea to it. The popularity of tea in England led to the severe trade imbalance between England and China, made worse by the fact that China being a huge and self-sustaining country, need not need to buy anything from England. To further fund its tea purchases from China, England decided to levy a tea tax on America in its sale of tea to it. However, the payment of this tax by the America residents would cement its status as a colony of England. As an act of rebellion against the status of colony imposed upon it by England, the chests of tea onboard ships docked at the Port of Boston were thrown overboard, marking the start of the War of Revolution which then ultimately led to the independence of America. This significant historical event explains why England remains a tea country and America remains a coffee country. It has got to do with nationalism.
The term Tea Break connotes a different meaning as compared to Afternoon Tea (low tea) or High Tea. Tea Break was a more recent concept introduced by the British in India. After the British successfully cultivated tea plants that matched the quality in China (having stolen 10,000 seedlings and smuggled Chinese tea workers from Wuyi Mountain in mid 19th century by Robert Fortune), the British wished to grow a domestic market in India for tea. At the turn of the 20th century, the British-controlled Indian Tea Association in collaboration with the colonial government, promoted tea to the locals by encouraging factories to set aside break times for tea mid afternoon, and set up tea stalls at railways and markets of cities and towns. The trend caught on and subsequently became a staple drink of the Indians mid 20th century.