Silk curtains and pretty tablecloths, silver trays and cutlery, people gossiping about incidents not quite as scandalous as the hushed tones would have you imagine. This is no doubt what you think of when you think of the institution that is the afternoon tea. George Gissing writes that “Nowhere is the English genius of domesticity more notably evident than in the festival of afternoon tea. The chink of cups and the saucers tunes the mind to happy repose.” It is this repetition that lends afternoon tea its universality; crustless cucumber sandwiches and china teaware. The fussy, old world charm of village jigsaw puzzles and Agatha Christie. No violence or disagreement can penetrate. Gets itself stuck in all the curtain folds.
If you are thinking this way, then you are more in line with your imagination than reality. For a start, tea has splintered into so many different factions in modern British life. Even the word itself has lost its university. Is it tea as in camellia sinensis, or tea as in a herbal infusion, or tea as in rooibos? The tins and jars, precariously stacked to find space, crush me.
Just like the changes in tea that have come about in the past 50 or so years, so too has the afternoon tea adapted to the changing culture. As the years roll on, generations pass onwards into disrepair. Entropy hits even millennials. If I get palpitations when someone of my own generation becomes prime minister, what’ll happen when a zoomer finds themselves there? This rolling on of time has helped to lift afternoon teas up from its stuffy origins. Millennials and Generation Z are the chief revolutionaries, with Generation Z at the vanguard. Not the normal battleground for teenage angst, but I guess that is the point. According to studies from Jing Tea, afternoon teas have rocketed amongst zoomers, with 52% having been once a month. As their interest grows, they have been adding their own spark. Younger audiences are moving towards herbal and green tea options, as well as a towards more artisanal patisserie, as opposed to your more basic victoria sponge. Alexander House, for instance, one of the hotels we work with, has a fantastic array of cakes and tarts. Champagne as well has become a popular addition to the afternoon tea, adding to the party element.
Millennials as a generation are drawn to particular brand identity, whereas gen z are drawn more to how brands interact with them. A generation weaned on choice, they are constantly drawn to uniqueness.
This seesaw between uniqueness and identity has been the driving force of the changes to the afternoon tea. In a competitive marketplace, an establishment has to stand out, both in appearance and what it can offer. An integral part of this is that it is becoming more of an events based activity among modern generations; a treat as opposed to your average afternoon activity. Gissing’s domesticity shrinks into the shadows. But while this is true, I think what is drawing younger generations to it is still contained essentially in what Gissing has to say. For him the afternoon tea represents a form of slow excitement, which I think strikes a chord with modern generations. Generation Z are turning more and more to simpler, more routine based lives. Influencers speak of ‘romanticising your life’, embracing the little pleasures, such as candles, a bath, or a Netflix binge. Younger generations are also drinking less and less, so the statement “pub anyone (?)” is losing its power.
It seems like the slow and subtle beauty of an afternoon tea fits perfectly into the priorities of the younger generations. Eric Hobsbawm speaks of British traditions as being malleable. We pick and choose our traditions so that they may fit into the modern times. It seems like this is being done here. The slowness, the repetition of an afternoon tea appeals to the fast paced, almost cyber reality of the modern world. To put it bluntly, it’s something to do that keeps us off our phones.
It maybe true, that in its development as a response to the speeding up world, it contains within its success its essential failing. It’ll innovate too far, lose its initial power, show up in one too many ads, and people will lose interest. This is true of everything though really. Nothing stays forever. Who knows what the tea habits of Generation Alpha will be. Let’s just relish, for the moment, in the current popularity of the most wonderful of all drinks.
Written by Euan Reid