or How to Prevent Your British Readers Thinking “wtf is John doing with that lapsang souchong?”
A reprint of the Reminiscences of enigmaticpenguinofdeath, a Tea-Drinking Englishwoman.
First off, I am not a tea sommelier. I don’t sell or work with tea, I have no professional qualifications in anything to do with tea. But I do drink tea, and I am British – English, to be more precise (and yes people from far-off lands, there is a difference, but I’ll stick to British for now). This means I am as well placed as anyone from this little island to be arrogantly judgemental about how some poor misguided people who aren’t fortunate enough to be British write strange, wtf-inducing descriptions of the consumption of tea. I am writing this with particular reference to Sherlock fanfiction and characters such as John, Sherlock, Mycroft and Greg, but some of my points are applicable to wider British-set-fandom fics in general.
It’s alright now, poor confused tea-worriers; I am here to help you. Not everyone likes to be individually Brit-picked so here is a primer in tea to set you on the right path. Let’s get down to business.
Is your kettle on yet?
A brief detour into my background, for this is relevant: I am in my late twenties, of the female persuasion. I work in an office that has a boiling water dispenser in the kitchen. I am from a lower-middle class background. I grew up in the South West of England. I prefer semi-skimmed milk. All of these facts have a direct bearing on my attitudes towards the drinking of tea – what sort of tea I prefer, and how and when I consume it. The tea drinking habits of a man in his fifties who left school and went straight into a manual job would be quite different to mine, as would those of a retired pensioner who is lactose intolerant or a self-employed thirty-something writer who grew up in the North of the country. Sherlock could probably write a good dozen monographs on the subject. The tea-habit will be different for every single person you meet or are trying to write fic about, and there are a thousand and one different ways to enjoy tea.
(Of course, as every right-thinking British person knows: the only really correct way to drink tea is the way you take it yourself. Everyone else is just Doing It Wrong.)
First let’s get a few basic facts about tea-drinking and the British straight.
We don’t actually all drink tea.
Yes, I know that this is shocking. The normal righteous tea-drinking folk all agree it’s terrible as well. But there are a few poor, deluded people who claim they don’t like the taste, or that they don’t like hot drinks at all, or who have chosen to live their life sticking two fingers up at the establishment by deliberately refusing all offers of tea even though they know in their hearts that it is a Holy and God-given beverage that sustains life and tastes bloody lovely. The rest of us (and we’re in the majority – 66% of the population of the UK drink tea every day) generally shun all these non-tea-drinking people and look upon them with a mixture of pity and disgust. Mostly disgust.
“Tea” means black tea, generally drunk with milk.
If a British person offers you a cup of tea and doesn’t immediately reel off a list of green/lemon/mint/other herbal and flavoured oddities, then they just mean the default: black tea. I realise that in many other countries tea is a minority interest and without the mainstream cultural expectations you all go in for experimenting with strange and unusual flavour combinations and types of tea, but here we just consider it to be a basic necessity – about on par with oxygen hence the oft-heard phrase “I’m gasping for a cup of tea” – and the consumption of regular black tea is a remarkably homogenous practice.
This is just referred to as “tea”, or in acceptable slang terms sometimes “a cuppa”, or “a brew”. Anyone who asks if you want “a cup of Rosy Lee” who isn’t actually an Edwardian cockney should be firmly slapped in the face. Tea is served with milk unless you jump in and ask otherwise, since 98% of us take it that way. If you ask someone to make you a cup of tea, this is what you will be served.
Many people these days don’t put any sugar in their tea, but some do – generally they’re from an older generation when sugar was more common, or are stereotypical builders or workmen who, legend has it, subsist on nothing but very strong sweet tea and digestive/rich tea biscuits (the “builder’s brew”) – so a stranger making you a cup of tea for the first time may still ask whether you want sugar in it even if they don’t take sugar themselves. A few oddballs may add honey instead, or have it without milk and with a slice of lemon. Unless they turn up to your house with their own honey and lemons, these people are just being bloody awkward and should be shown to the door if they won’t drink their tea properly.
Tea should be hot.
I was amazed to discover that in the US 85% of tea is drunk as iced tea. You people are weird. Tea is a hot beverage, the clue is there in that you make it with boiling water. (That’s boiling water people – not sitting around for five minutes with a teabag floating sorrowfully in a tepid cup of water next to you, actually boiling water,from a kettle.) In the UK iced tea is a strange, niche cold beverage – you might find a bottle of Lipton lemon iced tea in a supermarket or corner shop, but very few people seem to make it themselves at home. Because we’re all perfectly happy drinking our tea hot, as God intended, and not faffing around with ice cube trays. (No, our fridges don’t spit ice out of the doors – that’s clearly some Satanic technology you’ve got going on there and we’re mistrustful of it.)
Teabags and mugs are the default.
96% of tea drunk in the UK is made using teabags rather than loose-leaf tea, and we mostly use mugs. The outsider view of tea drinking here often seems to be that we all sit down at 4pm and make loose tea in a teapot, with fine china and little dainty sandwiches… well no. At 4pm most of us are at work or shepherding kids home from school, and any tea being drunk is made with a teabag, in a mug, with maybe the odd biscuit or a Kitkat on the side if we’ve been good or had a hard day. Teapots are handy if you’re making tea for more than two people, but it’s fine to make it directly in the mug if it’s just for you and a friend. The tea-and-cakes-on-fine-china “afternoon tea” ceremony is mostly engaged in by tourists, in the same way that few British people have a full cooked breakfast except when they’re on holiday or as a treat now and then at the weekend.
There are always exceptions to the rules, and again particularly with people from older generations there may be a preference for fine bone china cups and saucers rather than mugs, warming the teapot first and so on, while foodie types will be particular about the delights of a first-flush Darjeeling and may deride teabags as containing the “dusty sweepings from the floor of the tea factory”. But for the majority we are perfectly happy with a teabag in a mug, boiling water and a splash of milk, fish out the bag when it looks the right colour and job’s a good ‘un – quick and simple, bish bash bosh. If you drink maybe eight cups of a tea a day (and I have friends and relatives who would consider that a dry spell) then you just don’t have time to faff around with all that nonsense every time!
So now you are hopefully well grounded in the basics of British tea culture and we can move on to the specifics of including references to tea in Sherlock fanfiction.
Before you start, yes I realise that both John and Sherlock drink coffee a few times, but we’re going to ignore that and focus on the important hot caffeinated beverage that is the subject at hand – tea. What canonical tea appearances are there in the series so far? Well John is clearly a man wedded to his tea and he drinks it on numerous occasions – as a solid, no-nonsense pillar of England, tea symbolises his character in a way that is probably only rivalled by jumpers and jam in Sherlock fanon. (Well, that and the hedgehog thing…) He also makes or offers to make Sherlock tea or Sherlock asks John to make him a cup, though we rarely see Sherlock actually drinking it, and Mrs Hudson offers them both tea more than your average landlady (not your housekeeper dear) would.
The most memorable tea moments – Blind Banker and your Chinese teapots aside – are probably tea at the Palace in Scandal then John and Mycroft talking over tea at Speedy’s at the end of that episode, and the recurring tea motif throughout The Fall; both with the symbolic disruption and spilling of people’s tea during the break ins/outs at the start of the episode and then Sherlock making tea for Jim’s little uninvited but entirely expected visit to Baker Street.
These scenes cover the whole range of tea-drinking situations. You’ve got the ultimate formality of tea at the Palace, with fine bone china cups and saucers, and Mycroft “being mother” (which just means taking responsibility for pouring everyone’s tea when you’re sharing from a pot). Equal care and attention is shown by Sherlock’s preparation of tea for Jim – you don’t see John slurping down his morning cuppa from those cups and saucers (though Mrs Hudson does get tea in them after the incident with the Americans in Scandal). For most people, presenting someone with tea in a delicate cup and saucer would have an element of theatre about it – you’re making an impression with your elegant tea set including milk jug and sugar bowl, and it’s the closest thing the British have to a Japanese tea ceremony. As a guest you should be suitably impressed by the effort and hospitality being shown to you. I’m sure Jim was thrilled, though I think Sherlock could have put a plate of biscuits out…
Then there is the Speedy’s meeting at the end of Scandal, with John looking perfectly at place drinking what is no-doubt quite a builder’s brew mug of tea (in a café like that you might even be lucky enough to be served tea brewed in a giant urn, strong enough to stand a spoon up in). Mycroft thoroughly ignores his matching mug during the chat; as he says, he doesn’t frequent cafés. Then there are the Reichenbach security guards with their paper cups and the prison governor with his cheap mug, compared to the Bank of England chappie with his delicate cup and saucer – symbolic of the different social positions within the wider humorous demonstration of how tea-obsessed we all are, as Jim causes three spilled cups of tea when his plans are set in motion.
Tea in practice - John
So you’re writing something and want to include a moment of domesticity at Baker Street by having John make a cup of tea. He opens the cupboard and searches amongst the packets of chocolate caramel chai, rooibos and Earl Grey, reaching for the lapsang souchong… NO, STOP. Step away from the keyboard. John is, as we have established, a solid, no-nonsense straightforward English bloke, in his late thirties/early forties, and he is pretty much the poster boy for drinking normal milky black tea, made with a teabag, from a mug. The vast majority of men I have encountered of this type just drink normal tea and would consider regular consumption of anything much more fancy than that to be a strange and eccentric affectation. (And they probably can’t pronounce rooibos, let alone know it’s a type of tea.) This is why when your average British reader comes across John drinking some really off-the-wall flavoured tea with flowers and twigs and nonsense floating about in a tea diffuser, we think “wtf?”.
Even if the normal English tea-drinking genes weren’t dominant in his character, John’s military and medical backgrounds will have drummed into him a decent thirst for cheap ‘n’ nasty industrial hot, wet, caffeinated tea, made in the normal approved-of way. (I’ve worked in a GP’s surgery and the only ones who drank more tea than the doctors were the reception staff who needed roughly a cup every half hour just as a baseline.)
If I were to open the kitchen cupboard above the swish glowing kettle in 221B Baker Street (and be lucky enough not to come across eyeballs or fingers) then I would expect to find a jar or Tupperware box of something like Twinings English Breakfast teabags, or Whittard’s assam teabags – a good, flavoursome black tea that is a bit more upmarket than the most popular brands of PG Tips, Typhoo or Tetley bog standard black teabags – and a tin with loose leaves of something similar that gets brought out on special occasions. There might also be a box of something like chamomile tea back from when John was having trouble sleeping, since as a medical man he’d probably try a lot of good sleep hygiene routines like drinking chamomile tea before bed rather than heading straight for pills. There could also be boxes of all sorts of weird half chemistry experiments half tea blends belonging to Sherlock, but nothing much more exotic than that.
If you particularly and consciously want to give John a taste for unusual teas then fair enough, but it would be helpful to explain that into his character somewhere – having picked up a liking for Earl Grey from his mother who always drank it, or taking his tea black because milk was hard to come by when in the field during his army service, etc. (Though from the comments made on his blog about buying milk, it would seem likely that Sherlock and John both take it in the usual way.)
While I’m on the subject of John, to my mind he is the classic half-asleep teabag masher: it’s first thing in the morning and he needs, medically needs his cup of tea and it’s inherent refreshing caffeinated glory, and letting the bag sit and brew for a few minutes takes too long so he stands over the mug with the teabag, boiling water and milk poured in and then mashes away at the teabag until the liquid turns the right colour, giving you drinkable tea in about ten seconds. Hot, wet and now: think of that as your John tea-drinking motto (or just your John motto generally if you’re filthy minded).
I think John may also be a dunker – some British people having a habit of dunking biscuits (US folk – cookies) into their tea. These are usually plain biscuits or maybe something like a chocolate digestive/hobnob, and you hold the biscuit and partially submerge it into your tea for a few seconds before removing it and eating the now warm and soggy bit of the biscuit. Yes, I realise it sounds disgusting. I’m not personally a fan because bits of biscuit break off and leave a soggy biscuit residue at the bottom of the cup, and you risk losing half a biscuit to a Titanic-like breaking in half at the waterline if you leave the biscuit under too long, but many people live for their tea breaks and the simple pleasure of some hot, dunking action with a cup of tea and a few biscuits. John strikes me as the sort who would probably enjoy a good dunk.
Now Sherlock – he is obviously a bit more of an enigma than John, and I can see why he might be given a weird tea drinking habit, either to show he is eccentric, for the purposes of experimentation or just trying to get high off strange herbal concoctions. There have been many imaginings of what bizarre Holmesian upbringing produced Mycroft and him, usually involving a posh family, large house and expensive private boarding schools. This sort of background has antique tea sets and afternoon tea as a more regular occurrence, and Mummy might well take tea milkless and with lemon (though she would probably be brought it by a maid so wouldn’t have to faff about with a lemon herself). But after flying the nest and going through whatever life experiences brought him to where he was when he met John, Sherlock is obviously less concerned with the sort of formal, elegant niceties that probably coloured his childhood tea memories.
The exchange of tea with a guest is a display of hospitality – I doubt that clients like Henry visiting Baker Street get tea made for them by Sherlock, though they might from John or Mrs Hudson. Jim’s visit was obviously under slightly different circumstances, and Sherlock probably wanted to impress him a bit with his exact timing (not over brewing the tea in the pot) as well as putting on a show for their little chat. Without John or Mrs Hudson around, would Sherlock even make himself a cup of tea? Maybe, if he considered it to be hot, wet, caffeinated fuel to stop his brain dehydrating to the point of impairing his mental faculties. In Pink we see him asking Molly for coffee, black, two sugars, and I’ve often seen him characterised in fics as drinking ridiculously sugary tea, which would both help him keep going if he wasn’t eating during a case and reveals a bit of a sweet tooth – maybe it was a habit he took up to annoy Mycroft, who no doubt does not take sugar in his tea (if he’s watching his weight).
Now Mycroft, in my opinion, is a bone china cup and saucer man who may well have a stash of different loose leaf teas in his kitchen (and/or Anthea’s desk). Watching that scene with him and John at Speedy’s I wondered whether he even touched that mug of tea, and if he considered it to actually be a drinkable beverage. Taking tea in a cup and saucer would be part of the package, the appearance of classic British Establishment he presents to the world, with the three piece suit, watch chain and umbrella. Try to imagine Mycroft standing at a crime scene waiting to nag/stalk/be concerned over Sherlock about something, holding a cup of tea in a flimsy plastic cup and deriving any sort of satisfaction from the experience. The world would probably come to an end, wouldn’t it?
(I know that cup is labelled coffee, but it might have tea in it… shush.)
Greg on the other hand, I would place somewhere closer to John on the “hot, wet, now, caffeinated” scale of things – with years of working crime scenes in the middle of cold, wet nights in London you probably adapt to gain enjoyment from even very rubbish tea; the sort made in a paper cup with a little carton of UHT “milk” that makes the whole thing taste strange and chemically. Greg and John would chat away quite happily over a cup of builders tea at Speedy’s, even while Sherlock dissolved half a dozen sugar sachets into his drink creating tooth-melting tea syrup and Mycroft sat mournfully thinking of the much better tea available back at his office.
So, that is far more rambling about tea and Sherlock than I intended to come up with, but I hope that it’s been educational and enlightening. I’m going to go and stick the kettle on now – I’m gasping.
EDIT: There is now a follow-up, in the form of A Guide to Writing Sherlockian-Biscuit Habits, or Why John Would Dunk a Biscuit in His Tea and Not Cover it With Gravy.