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Short History of Irish Tea
There’s no doubt that the Irish are mad for their tea. Drinking hot tea became popular among the wealthy in Ireland in the 18th century but high prices kept the average Irish person from enjoying the new beverage. Tea sales blossomed in Ireland once Irish traders, spear headed in 1835 by merchant Samuel Bewley and his son Charles, began to import tea directly from China. Luckily their gamble paid off - the Irish importers were able to lower the price and hence discovered a very receptive market for tea in Ireland. By the mid 19th century tea was commonly found everywhere in the Emerald Isle. Popular teas are now produced by several Irish companies, including Bewleys, Barrys and Lyons. Incredibly, the Irish now drink more tea per capita than any other country in the world.
Tea in Ireland is above all things a social tradition and one which blends well with the time-honored rules of hospitality which go back to the ancient Celtic ancestors of the Irish. Upon entering an Irish home or even a business, it is a common courtesy to greet visitors by offering them a cup of tea. Ireland’s frequently damp climate makes hot tea a welcome beverage to the traveler, who often gladly accepts. A cup of strong Irish tea helps to warm up and get the conversation going. Conversation is an important part of Irish social life, whether it be in the pub over a pint of stout or virtually anywhere over a cup of tea. Tea is drunk by everyone – men, women, children and adults.
Tea may be taken at any time of the day but traditionally around 11 am and 3 pm there is a tea break, often with cookies or cake. On special occasions the afternoon tea may be a fancy tea served with an impressive variety of finger foods - tiny sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, cookies and cake. The evening tea around 6 PM is essentially the evening meal - a hot meal served with good strong, black tea. The Sunday evening meal however is usually a late afternoon tea accompanied by something savory and delightful like a roast chicken and mashed potatoes.
Why take a break for tea that is not a meal? Much like we stop for a cup of coffee here in the US, the tea break is a chance to relax and enjoy some conversation with friends or co-workers. Everyone needs to recharge the mental batteries and tea of course offers that little extra kick of caffeine to help you finish the day without dragging your feet.
Tea in Ireland is brewed strong and served with lots of milk, or “lashings” of milk, to “color the tay.” Sugar may be added to taste. When I was in school in Ireland I drank my tea black with no sugar or milk and people looked at me askance, for this was not a proper cup of tea! I’ve since learned the error of my ways.