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Afternoon Tea, High Tea, Cream Tea... What's the Difference?

I often see the terms "afternoon tea", "high tea", and "cream tea" being used interchangeably. They are actually different variations on the same thing: snacks or a meal served with tea. I thought I'd break it down for you by explaining those differences so you can use the right term for your next tea party.

afternoon tea party serving ideas scones tarts tiered cake standAfternoon Tea by Life Made Sweeter

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea is a selection of finger foods like cake, scones, tarts, and other treats that is usually served more casually than a High Tea. It may also include small finger sandwiches with no crusts. Traditional British Afternoon Tea was served in drawing rooms on couches or chairs rather than at a table. It was our equivalent of an afternoon snack, although certainly much classier!

It is this kind of tea that is what most people think of when they hear the words "tea party". Afternoon Tea usually features china cups and saucers and more delicate brews.

High Tea

High Tea is served at a dining table, hence "high tea", and is more of a meal. Many High Teas will include cold meats, jam, tea cakes, fresh bread, more substantial sandwiches, pork pies, etc. High Tea is usually served on regular plates instead of fine china, and is a precursor to a light dinner which may be served later in the evening. It is what many workers would consume after a long day in the fields or factories in the UK. Tea served for High Tea is usually strong and most often black, however this is based on preference.

If you search Google or Pinterest for High Tea ideas, you'll get a misleading number of pictures and articles about things that are technically Afternoon Tea. 

high tea - what is the difference between high tea and afternoon tea?High Tea as served by Primus Hotel in Sydney - they've done it right!

Cream Tea

Cream Tea refers to scones with clotted cream (also called Devonshire cream) and jam. If you visit the UK, you will find Cream Tea available on a lot of cafe menus, especially near tourist hot spots like castles or cathedrals. 

Clotted Cream originated in Devon and Cornwall, although it is now easy to find all over the UK. A popular question related to Cream Tea is whether the cream or jam should be put on the scone first. If you're in Devon, the cream goes on first, followed by a hearty scoop of fruit jam. If you're in Cornwall, the jam is put on first. Regardless of the way you order your toppings, a Cream Tea is an absolute must if you're visiting the Western regions of England.

Cream Tea is a common addition to Afternoon Tea.

Cream Tea, photo by Liyster, Wikimedia Creative Commons

Some regions of the UK will also refer to dinner or supper as "tea". This term for an evening meal originated in Scotland, but I can tell you from experience that it is also used in a lot of other areas. This confused me when I first moved to the UK, especially as many of my friends would have their "tea" and not actually drink any tea with their meal.

Now that you know the difference between Afternoon Tea, High Tea, and Cream Tea, you're ready to plan an amazing tea party! Check out our blog post of Tea Party Ideas and Recipe Roundup for more inspiration.