What is the Difference Between “High” Tea and “Afternoon” Tea?

Although some people these days think that high tea and afternoon tea are the same, they are actually completely different from each other. When thinking of the two, some might imagine fancy tea parties and formal wear; this is actually true only for afternoon tea.

What is the Difference Between “High” Tea and “Afternoon” Tea?

Most people serve afternoon tea and high tea at two different times during the day. At the time when people regularly observed both tea times, the upper class took one while the working class took another one.

Contrary to what some people might think, these are not only two separate times where people have their tea. Historically, high tea consists of a full dinner taken by the working class while afternoon tea is more of a midday meal established by the upper class that includes an array of finger food.

Afternoon tea being served with various kinds of snacks

There are significant differences between the two occasions. Read below to learn more about how high tea differs from afternoon tea.

High Tea

  • Often served at high dining tables with high dining chairs.
  • It was for the working, lower-class people in the 19th century.
  • It was a casual meal often eaten after a long workday.
  • People served high tea around 6 or 7 pm (dinner time). 
  • People served high tea with dinner food which included fish, meat pies, bread, and baked beans.

Afternoon Tea

  • People often sat at lower tables and soft, comfortable chairs. 
  • It was traditionally for the upper-class society.
  • Afternoon tea was a formal social gathering or “tea party” taken between breakfast and dinner.
  • People served it in the afternoon around 3 or 4 pm.
  • It was a light meal or snack that consisted of tea, sandwiches, scones, and sweets.

As you can see, high tea and afternoon tea are far from the same thing. 

Why Do We Call it High Tea?

People often think that high tea refers to “high class”. This is why we often confuse high tea with afternoon tea or why some people think they’re the same thing. Actually, the name high tea comes from the high tables and chairs people use to have dinner.

Before the people started referring to it as high tea, they simply called it “tea” or “meat tea”. These names basically all meant dinner time. 

High tea being served during a set of Japanese meal

What’s the Origin of High Tea?

High tea originated in England in the 18th century and became more popular well into the 19th century. Because tea was so expensive, the lower society could not afford to drink tea leisurely

Instead, they drank it with their evening meal after a long day of work. They would arrive home in the evening hungry, thirsty and exhausted. This made high tea the perfect tea time for them.

What is in a High Tea Menu?

The high tea menu in the 19th century consisted of similar food to what we eat today. Considering that people served high tea at dinner time, the menu would consist of hot, heavy food such as rice, beans, bread, soups, stews, and anything else that they would eat at the dinner table.

Unlike an afternoon tea, there aren’t certain foods that go with high tea. High tea is just a typical dinner eaten along with a mug of tea.

What is Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon tea is a light meal or snack eaten with a cup of tea around late afternoon; 3 or 4 pm. 

In a lot of countries, some people refer to afternoon tea as high tea. This is why so many people think that they are the same thing. Some people even call afternoon tea “low tea” because of the low tables they served this tea.

Racks of various pastries being served during Afternoon Tea

Who Created Afternoon Tea?

In the early 19th century people only had two meals per day; breakfast and dinner. Because of the long break between the two meals, Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford, had her servants bring her tea and a light meal. She began to invite her friends to the small “midday snack”, and soon, everyone followed her tradition.

What Do You Eat at Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon tea consists of small finger foods and pastries which might include:

  • Scones
  • Tea sandwiches
  • Crumpets
  • Deviled eggs
  • Cake or cupcakes
  • Fruit tarts
  • Biscuits

This is only a small list of foods served at an afternoon tea. These treats are some of the most popular, although some people also add meat, poultry, and seafood to the menu.


Don’t worry too much about confusing high tea with afternoon tea. There are even several popular hotel chains that call afternoon tea “high tea”. Knowing the difference between high tea and afternoon tea and why they’re so different can make you sound like a tea expert.

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