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Though it seems paradoxical, tea has been used for centuries,  to both stimulate and relax.  In addition to the consumption of the tea,  rituals, traditions and elaborate ceremonies have grown around it. This includes the construction of specific buildings and gardens exclusively for the consumption of tea.  Various cultures have added aspects to the drinking of tea that make it very much unique to that culture.  Thus, we can study the development of those tea rituals and gain a deeper insight into the values of those cultures….all built around the drinking of tea!  Tea is purported to posses therapeutic qualities but for the most part it doesn’t provide any particular nutrition.  Yet, it has developed into a universally recognized beverage worldwide. Those from the western cultures think of “taking tea” as being solely owned by the English in the time of Queen Victoria.  Indeed, Victorian England perfected the familiar ceremony that we think of today and it reflects the values of the times.  We, at Entertaining with Grace would like to take this opportunity to introduce our guests to other less familiar aspects of “taking tea”.  We invite you to visit for a detailed description of the dos and don’ts of serving a formal tea in the English/Victorian tradition as well as get a glimpse of the tea ceremony celebrated in Japan and China.

Some facts about tea:
Teas are divided in to three categories according to the method used for preparing them for the consumer.
UNOXIDIXIDIZED OR UNFERMENTED:  This category includes the green teas.  Not unexpectedly, the leaves are green and the resulting tea is light colored and has a delicate flavor.
PARTLY OXIDIZED OR PARTLY FERMENTED:  This category includes the Oolong and Ceylon varieties.  The leaves are brown and the resulting tea is darker and has a noticeable aroma.

OXIDIZED OR FERMENTED:  This category is also called “black” tea and includes English Breakfast and the India teas Darjeeling and Pekoe.  As the name suggests these tea leaves are black and the tea is very dark.  Some say that the black teas have a fruity flavor.

Yes, there is a third tea…”white tea”.  This is the least processed tea and comes from the young, unopened buds.  Once reserved for the Emperors of China, it is rare, delicate and expensive.  To make this tea, the water must be less than boiling it should steep between 30 and 60 seconds!  It should be consumed without milk or sugar.  This tea is not suitable for a crowd.

Tea is purported to have medicinal qualities, however, these are nullified if you take milk with your tea. 

Today, we simply pick up a box of tea bags and drop one in a cup of boiling water.  However, there are dramatic differences in the teas and we will give a brief overview to introduce you to some of the characteristics that make tea…tea.

In order to identify the quality of the tea, you will need to purchase what is called “loose” tea.  Loose tea  is just the tealeaves with no tea bags.  Most grocery stores sell the loose tea in boxes but in order to select the tealeaves you will need to go to a specialty store.  Once you determine the quality and dependability of the merchant, you can probably order the tea on line.  You are looking for tealeaves that are well curled and free of dust and stems.  For obvious reasons, you want the tealeaves, not the residue from the plant.  When the tea is being prepared for sale, the leaves are withered or steamed and then rolled by hand or machine.  Tea with large leaves, tea with dust and stems is poor quality and though cheaper it isn’t a good buy because you must use more to get the desired strength and flavor. 

Tea readily absorbs moisture and odors and the oils that give it its flavor can easily evaporate.  Therefore, store tea in tightly sealed containers away from light and heat.  Don’t buy large quantities of tea as it does get old.  Buy only what you will use so that it stays fresh. 

Here are the steps for preparing loose tea:

Use a glass or china teapot to make the tea. It is essential that the pot be very clean.  Tea contains oils that adhere to the pot.  Therefore, you must wash it carefully following each use.  Happily, the dishwasher will clean your pot very well. 

The amount of tea you use will depend on the type and grade of tea and the desired strength.  Start with one teaspoon of tea per cup.  If you are preparing the tea to serve at a party, you will be wise to make the tea very strong so that it can be diluted for those who want weaker tea. 

Heat the teapot by filling it with boiling water. Empty the water. Place the tealeaves in a “tea ball” or strainer.  Fill the tea ball only half way as the tealeaves expand when you add the water.  Place the tea ball in the pot and add freshly boiling water.  It is recommended that you bring the pot to the kettle rather than the kettle to the pot to ensure that the water is still hot.  Put the cover on the teapot and allow it to steep for 3 to 5 minutes.  Remove the tea ball and serve at once.  Never reuse the tea.

If you are serving a formal tea, you will be using a silver tea service.  Do not attempt to brew the tea in the silver teapot.  Instead, poor hot water into the teapot to heat it up. Remove the water and poor the steeped tea into the serving teapot.  As you will read later, the person serving the tea will ask the guest if they want their tea weak or strong.  In order to accommodate individual tastes you will need a second sterling pot that contains hot water.  Often these are placed on burners in order to keep the water hot.

Since you will also be serving coffee at a formal “tea” we have the following advice for preparing coffee from the Coffee Brewing Institute. Make sure that your coffee pot is completely clean.  Like tea, coffee contains oils and it is important to clean it carefully after each use.  Use fresh coffee that is the proper grind for the method you will be using (drip, vacuum or percolator). Use two level tablespoons per ¾ cups of cold water.  If you find that your coffee is sometimes good but not always, it may be that you are not measuring carefully each time or your coffee may not be fresh.  You will get the best results when you brew coffee to the full capacity of your coffee maker.    


An American Afternoon Tea Party:
The party is usually given between the hours of three and five in the afternoon.  You will have sent out written invitations and will have requested the favor of a reply.  The tea can be given in honor of someone such as a bride or out of town guest or to celebrate a special event such as a birthday.  If given in winter, the blinds and curtains are drawn and the room is lighted as it would be at night.  An afternoon tea in summer is the same, except that artificial light is never used.  Though candles are placed on the table, they are never lighted in the afternoon. If there are twenty or more guests, the table is set in the dining-room, covered with a white cloth and the tea service is placed at one end and coffee at the other.  Though hot chocolate can be served at the end with the coffee, it probably is an unnecessary inconvenience unless it is a cold, wintery day.   A good friend will sit at each end to preside over the tea and coffee service.  It is an honor to be asked to “pour” and the arrangements are made in advance.  Since those “pouring” will be trapped for a time, it is appropriate to bestow this honor on several who can take shifts.  We have provided the description of the event from Emily Post’s 1922 Edition of the Etiquette In Society, In Business, In Politics and at Home published by Funk and Wagnalls.  It is just too charming to miss and if you are really interested in the way it should be done, you’ll enjoy the following very much. As we said in our description of Formal Dining, you can use this as a guide and adapt your tea party to suit your tastes and resources. 

“The ladies who “pour” are always especially invited beforehand and always wear afternoon dresses, with hats, of course, as distinguished from the street clothes of other guests. As soon as a hostess decides to give a tea, she selects two friends for this duty who are, in her opinion, decorative in appearance and also who (this is very important) can be counted on for gracious manners to everyone and under all circumstances. It does not matter if a guest going into the dining-room for a cup of tea or chocolate does not know the deputy hostesses who are “pouring.” It is perfectly correct for a stranger to say “May I have a cup of tea?” The one pouring should answer very responsively, “Certainly! How do you like it? Strong or weak?” If the latter, she deluges it with hot water, and again watching for the guest’s negative or approval, adds cream or lemon or sugar.”

Since you have made the tea using loose tea, there will still be some tealeaves in the pot even though you have removed the tea ball.  You will need a lovely tea strainer with your tea service.  These are designed so that you can hold them over the teacup when pouring the tea.  Most come with a matching stand.  When pouring through the strainer, be careful to hold it slightly above the rim of the cup so as not to touch it.  In this way you will not contaminate the strainer when guests return for a refill.  Also, offer only milk with tea, never cream! 

You can use your imagination at such an event,  just make sure that everything is easily consumed with the fingers.  Finger sandwiches, small tarts or individual quiches, cookies, pastries and petit fours are ideal for the event.  Remember this is between lunch and dinner so your guests will want dainty snacks that they can put on their plate with the tea or coffee cup. Cucumber and water cress sandwiches are always thought of with tea, but you aren’t bound to serve them.  Reserve hors d’oeuvres and chips for a cocktail party not a tea party. 

If you are entertaining a few friends in your home for tea, it is a bit more relaxed yet there is still a formula to the ceremony.  You may invite your guests by written invitation, email or phone.  In any case, ask for the favor of a reply as you will have gone to a lot of trouble.  Once again, the time will be between the hours of three and five in the afternoon. 

When your guests arrive, you will invite them to sit in the living room or possibly out on the patio depending on the weather.  The tea service can be placed on a coffee table or tea cart.  This should include your freshly brewed tea, hot water to dilute the tea, tea strainer, milk pitcher, sugar cubes, sugar substitute and thin slices of lemon.  You will need sugar tongs for the lump sugar. The tea cups and saucers will be either on the table in front of each guest or within reach.  You as the hostess will, serve each guest one at a time and just as in the elaborate service described above, you will ask how each wants their tea.  Once again, you will have finger food available for your guests to put on their plate.  You will notice that coffee is not offered in the intimate tea party. 

One frequent misconception is the term “High Tea”.  It is not a formal event rather it is the reverse.  It was called “high tea” because it was served on a high dinning table. It is a full meal that is served around 6:00 p.m. Ironically, it is associated with the lower classes as this was their evening meal.

Cream Tea The typical image of afternoon tea, is called “cream tea”.  As mentioned earlier, tea is served with milk not cream so the term here refers to the “Devonshire” cream or clotted cream that is served with scones.  This yummy thick item resembles soft butter and is spread on the scones.  The table, which is covered with a white cloth, will have and the single food item is scones with the clotted cream and strawberry preserves.

Light Tea is one step up with sweets added to the menu.

Afternoon or Full Tea actually has three individual courses served on a three tiered serving tray and offered one course at a time.  The first course, on the bottom tier, is the “savories” which is another name for sandwiches.  The middle tier contains, the scones  and the third tier, has sweets and cake.

Royal Tea has everything from the Full Tea with the addition of a glass of sherry or champagne. 

If you have had the good fortune of being invited to a tea, take the time to send a hand written thank you note.  To be entirely proper, it should be send within 24 hours.  However, if you miss that time frame, send it anyway as it will be much appreciated and may mean that you will get invited again. 

Now it is your turn to host the next tea party.