Let’s talk tea: An essential guide for visitors to Ireland.

As I am every bit as busy this week as expected, have this wee snippet for your reading entertainment:

Descartes had it all wrong. I think, therefore I am? Whatever. Round these parts, I prefer: I drink tea, therefore I am. Or even: I am Irish, therefore I drink tea.

It has become clear to me recently that some people not from around here (I’m looking at you, Americans) have a misconception or six about my country’s beverage of choice. This cannot be allowed to continue, so let’s put the kettle on and sort this out, shall we?

Misconception the First: Irish People Drink Guinness

Stereotypes would have you believe that Irish people look askance at those who don’t drink alcohol. While this may be the case, it’s nothing in comparison to the suspicion levelled on someone who doesn’t drink tea. What kind of person doesn’t drink tea? What is this not drinking tea? How does that even work?

Tea is ubiquitous. We drink tea in the morning for breakfast, we take a cuppa into the office, have a mug after lunch. If you’re looking sad, I’ll pop the kettle on. Good news requires tea to celebrate. Nervous or worried about something? Tea. Working hard? Tea. Need to relax? Tea. Visit someone’s house? Tea- and nothing matches the consternation of a host who’s just been told that their visitor doesn’t fancy a cup. What are we supposed to do now?! Better brew up a nice soothing cup mug just to take the edge off.

There Are No Teas. There is Tea.

There are three little words you’ll never hear in Ireland- and no, I’m not talking about our nationwide inability to talk about our feelings when we haven’t had a brace of pints to loosen us up. I’m talking about this: Irish Breakfast Tea.

We do not have Breakfast Tea in Ireland. We have Tea.

Likewise, I’ve been asked all sorts of questions about teas by people from outside here, with the assumption that I’ll have some kind of insider knowledge into the latest herbal or fruity hot water concoction. NOPE. Herbal teas may be lovely, but they are not Tea.

You Are Your Tea. Your Tea Is You.

There are three kinds of Tea. There is Barry’s Tea. There is Lyons Tea. And there is That Other Own-Brand Shite You Bought Because You Thought It Would Be A Good Idea To Save Money, What Were You Even Thinking Though?

Outsiders might have trouble distinguishing these three. You might think that they all taste the same. You might even think that the own-brand stuff is perfectly good and maybe even a little nicer.

Do not say this out loud in Ireland. To an Irish person, our brand of tea- Barry’s or Lyons?- is not simply a beverage. It is who we are. You pick a side, and you stick with it. We defend our tea with the kind of loyalty and partisanship normally reserved for major sporting events or centuries-old religious differences. Non-Irish would have you believe that the major divisions in our country are, in fact, on sporting, religious and political grounds. Those people have never seen a Barry’s drinker offered a cup of Lyons.

This, of course, does not mean it’s okay to refuse a cup of your least favourite brand of tea when offered it. Irish etiquette demands that you drink that tea while silently judging your host and making no outward sign of anything other than appreciation, before badmouthing their complete lack of taste behind their back. It’s only polite.

How Do You Take It?

Okay. You’ve arrived in Ireland having fully researched which brand of tea you are going to stick to like glue for your time here. Or maybe you just flipped a coin to decide your future loyalty. You think that armed with a rock-solid belief that Lyons is the only thing worth drinking and everything else is mud and shite (you filthy Lyons-drinking blasphemer, you), you can earn the respect of the locals.

Wrong.

If you still think that “how do you take your tea?” is a perfectly innocuous question, then I wonder if you’ve been reading this at all. A nation that divides itself along nigh-identical brands of black tea is not going to be deterred from judging you based on every other aspect of your cuppa.

Strength

My old Nana used to take her tea weak. She had style. She had grace.  She was a classy lady (who knew that there was only one way to get through the dozen or so cups of an average day).

I take my tea strong. I’m a straight-talkin’ woman who takes no crap from nobody, and so is my cuppa.

Strong tea is nurses and builders tea- the stuff gulped down by people who work with their hands in between driving trucks, carrying giant slabs of concrete with their bare hands or lifting patients. Strong tea powers the working wo/man and doesn’t have time to muck about.

Weak tea is for classy ladies and gents who have the time to sip.

Sugar

Sugar is not simply sugar. Sugar is a sign of your constitution- are you someone with an iron will who cares nothing for such fripperies as pleasure and sees all kinds of enjoyment as vaguely decadent? You’ll want to drink your tea without, then. Do you see yourself as a balanced, responsible person who enjoys a treat now and then? That’ll be a single spoon for you. Have you reached the stage of your life where you couldn’t give a rat’s ass what people think? Pile on the spoons and watch eyes widen as you go beyond the respectable-yet-indulgent two spoons and into the land of ultimate sweetness. People will gasp. There will be disbelief. People will talk- if you take four spoons, then what else do you do? What do you get up to behind closed doors? Take four or more spoons, and people will definitely want to come to your parties.

Milk

You may think that strength and sugar were bizarrely loaded topics. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Did you know that ’round these parts, we can tell a person’s class background simply by observing when they add the milk to their tea?

To look at me, you would think that I am a fairly (culturally) middle-class individual. I have the MA under my belt, work in a job that requires a degree, am the child of two academics, and when I am broke I grow my own strawberries. And yet, if you give me a pot of tea and a jug of milk, when I pour my cup I put in the milk first.

Adding the milk first when you drink tea from a pot, you see, is a sure sign that one comes from the lower socioeconomic echelons of society. People from the more privileged classes would never do such a thing- it’s tea first, milk after (or maybe not at all- a sign that one can truly afford the most delicate blends, and also that you’re not afraid to point that fact out without a word).

The question of tea-milk order is not solely one of class, though. To add the tea first shows that you are a careful individual. You need to know precisely how strong the tea is coming out of the teapot, to determine exactly how much milk you require. You don’t want to risk having too little milk and needing to add more- or, worse still, drinking tea with too much milk. As for the milk-firsters? Milk first shows a devil may care attitude, throwing caution to the wind and taking what life throws at you with a grin.

There’s one thing that tea-first and milk-first people can all agree on, though. Is is blasphemy of the worst kind to add the milk to a cup before the teabag. There is actually a practical reason for this: tea brews best at the highest temperatures possible. The closest you can get that water to 100 degrees, the more delicious your tea will be. This is, by the way, why tea brewed in the cosy, insulated environment of a pot (perhaps covered with a nice tea cosy) is the best. Brewing tea in a cup is less delicious, but far more practical if you’re just making it for yourself, but it’s important to take care to keep everything as hot as it can be. Adding the milk to a mug first creates a pathetic, lukewarm environment and terrible tea. Adding the milk first when you’re making tea for a guest? You’ll be glad to know we outlawed capital punishment in this country decades ago, cause otherwise you might want to start worrying.

 

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Let’s talk tea: An essential guide for visitors to Ireland.
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16 thoughts on “Let’s talk tea: An essential guide for visitors to Ireland.

  1. 1

    Oh dear. Oh dear. How terribly offensive must have been our questions to our Irish friends! (Imagine – we asked them if they would drink some chinese tea (typically some yunan), and usually had forgotten to mention that we have one of the Irish breakfast teas…

    1. 1.1

      Were you in Ireland at the time? We tend to be pretty open minded when it comes to other people’s houses.. I mean, especially if it’s non Irish people who can’t be expected to know what a Proper Cuppa is 😉

  2. 3

    I spent two weeks in your lovely country a few years back and to the best of my recollection I was never offered tea. Whiskey? Oh yes, plenty of offers of that, always at the end of a night in the pub. Ms. Fishy and I would eye each other askance and say something like “That’s great, we really appreciate the offer. But if we head back to your place and start in on the hard stuff we’ll never get going in the morning.”

    I wonder what would have happened if I told someone there how I really feel about tea, and all hot drinks come to that? I’d rather drive a fork into my left temporal lobe via my right ear using just a carpet slipper and bad intentions than drink hot liquids.

    1. 3.1

      Sounds like you dodged a bullet alright. It could be that we generally do our alcohol-drinking in public places but tea is What Happens When You Visit Someone’s House, so maybe as a visitor you’d end up in the more public types of social interactions?

  3. 4

    So, Aoife, for a tea-curious American living in a place likely unknown to the Irish, what would you suggest I do to dip my toe in to the tea-drinking world, so to speak?
    I’m a 50-something bloke who never managed to tolerate the taste of coffee, so I drink diet pop (I’m from Michigan, it’s POP not soda, dammit!) primarily. I thought I might try dabbling in tea just for some variety. And tea, after all, seems like something the more refined types drink.

    So I know nothing – seriously nothing – about tea. Could you point me to a resource which might tell me all about how to brew a proper cup of Irish tea? And Barry’s and Lyon’s aren’t specific enough. They apparently have blends and varieties and such. Which should I choose? Keep in mind, I’m only tea curious, and decidedly not swimming in disposable income, so I’d rather defer investing in a proper tea service and all the trappings until I’ve tried it and I feel ready to go all in.

  4. 6

    As a Canadian, my hot beverage preferences are about evenly split between coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, depending on my mood. Growing up, the choices were Salada Tea,Tetley Tea, and Red Rose Tea. The music for a series of Salada Tea commercials became a BIG hit in the ’70s.

    I did have Irish grandparents, though, and I well recall Pappy instructing me, at the age of 5 or 6, on how to properly prepare a pot. Both bagged and loose teas were covered in these early morning seminars. To this day, when I prepare a pot, I follow his method.

    Oh, and I drink both my tea and coffee black and flavourful!

  5. 7

    I love this article. Tea is TEA and not hot fruit juice (I will drink the occasional herbal but it isn’t TEA).

    Count me in the milk-afterward, three-sugars crew. Although these days it’s three sweeteners. What’s the reaction to those, I wonder?

  6. 8

    Punjana at our house, not Barry’s, not Lyons, and most definitely not PG Tips. Punjana red bag. Teabag, water within four seconds of the kettle clicking off, brew till you can barely see the tea bag, remove without squeezing, then add milk (my mother-in-law will merrily add milk with the tea bag still in the cup, which makes me tear my hair out. Oh and I’m an expat Yank. 🙂

    1. 8.1

      Ha, I love my housemate for SO MANY REASONS, but… She totally puts milk into the tea while the teabag is still in there. To be honest at this stage I think she does it half to wind me up. At least, I tell myself that, because at least then there’s a legitimate reason for that kind of heresy 😉

  7. 9

    […] “Stereotypes would have you believe that Irish people look askance at those who don’t drink alcohol. While this may be the case, it’s nothing in comparison to the suspicion levelled on someone who doesn’t drink tea. What kind of person doesn’t drink tea? What is this not drinking tea? How does that even work? Tea is ubiquitous. We drink tea in the morning for breakfast, we take a cuppa into the office, have a mug after lunch. If you’re looking sad, I’ll pop the kettle on. Good news requires tea to celebrate. Nervous or worried about something? Tea. Working hard? Tea. Need to relax? Tea. Visit someone’s house? Tea- and nothing matches the consternation of a host who’s just been told that their visitor doesn’t fancy a cup. What are we supposed to do now?! Better brew up a nice soothing cup mug just to take the edge off.” Let’s talk tea: An essential guide for visitors to Ireland – Consider the Tea Cosy […]

  8. 10

    Protocol question, should I ever find myself 1. in Ireland, and 2. invited into people’s homes to a degree that I would need to worry about it. And also general curiosity if/how this would typically be handled amongst yourselves, as I imagine my medical issues are not exactly unique.

    If someone, say, can’t really have tea because they have issues with caffeine (yay, migraines… mild ones, as migraines go, but no beverage is worth a headache), is there a protocol for polite, non-upsetting refusal, or substitution of a medically approved alternate beverage?

    1. 10.1

      If you tell people that you’re allergic to caffeine, I’m sure everything will be fine! Although you might be offered some form of herbal tea that’s been sitting in the cupboard since 2007..

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