How to Do Tea in the U.S.

Would you like some tea with your cream? (Photo via AP)

Yes, I’m going to give British readers a few pointers on tea – American style.

The U.S. consumes a surprising amount of tea. When in the States however, especially in the South, do not assume that all tea is hot. According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., about 85% of the tea consumed here is iced, which means that your waiter or host will not automatically know that you’re craving a nice, hot cup o’ char. In some restaurants, your tea will come with a slice of lemon or a small amount of honey; if you take milk in your tea, you might have to chase down a waiter and ask for “cream.” Americans serve cream with their coffee and tea, which tastes absolutely fine; it’s not as thick as the cream you’d pour over a dessert, but a lot thicker than milk. (You will be able to get a small jug of milk if you insist, but it might take a while.)

When buying tea bags here, look carefully at the labels. Much of it will be iced tea bags, such as Lipton’s, which aren’t made for hot tea and don’t brew as well. In my opinion, if this is your only option, you’d be better off buying loose black tea and a strainer or an infuser.  Most stores now serve the smaller boxes of fancier tea bags, like Twining’s and Bigelow, but they’re more expensive. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to score a box of PG Tips for about $6; the Tetley’s British Blend isn’t bad either.

Hot tea drinkers over here are a lot more adventurous than your typical Brit, and you’ll find a wide and strange variety of tea on offer. I often find myself inwardly screaming “I just want a normal cup of tea” as I face rows of fancy concoctions, such as the Spearmint Green, Vanilla Roolbos and Jasmine Orange in Starbucks. Yes, that’s Jasmine Orange tea.

If someone offers you a cup of tea and asks how you like it made, or words to that effect, do yourselves both a favo(u)r and either offer to make it or tell him/her exactly how you like it.  If you’re a Brit who is extremely picky about how your tea is made, first of all, lighten up, and second, you might have to lower your standards. I don’t know many Americans who rinse the teapot with boiled water first (if they use a teapot) or “take the pot to the kettle not the kettle to the pot.”

Tea vocabulary is a little different here too. Telling someone you like “builders’ tea” will probably be met with blank looks, since builders here don’t demand an endless supply of tea as part of the contract. Similarly, answering “white without” to the offer might need further explanation and it goes without saying that asking “Shall I be mother?” will get you some very strange looks indeed.

Hopefully, no one will have the experience I had a few years ago in a New York hotel, when I called room service for two teas. About forty-five minutes later I received two tall glasses of tea with cream; each glass contained two tea bags that had obviously been in there for the entire forty-five minutes as the tea was tepid and strong enough to stand the spoon up in.  Almost put me off for life!

On the bright side — if offered a Long Island Iced Tea, it’s a delicious, alcoholic beverage made with vodka, gin, tequila and rum.

How do you like your tea?



Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Stephen Feehily

    Tea here is weird, even Twinings, a brand I used in the UK, doesn’t work here. The bags are the small ones on a string and don’t make a good, strong brew. Thankfully I have a World Market nearby that sells PG Tips and it makes a great cuppa. Also has Hob Nobs and Digestives!
    I never ask for “hot” tea when I am out, too many misses, in fact I don’t remember having a good cup of tea outside of my own kitchen since I got here.

    “You put milk in your tea? Eeeeww!”

    • Glenda Ray

      I got the same sort of answer when I asked for iced tea. “Why would you spoil your tea with ice.” But I do make my hot tea in the British way as it is the way I was taught as a child to make tea.

    • Polly

      Hob Nobs – Although they drink alf ya brew they remain the marines of the biscuit

  • mkat

    I only spent a semester in the UK and when I came home the tea was a huge disappointment. Was so happy when I could get PG Tips and Digestives at my Local Meijer (Tesco-esque kind of place) Any time I can find Devonshire cream I go bananas! And this American rinses her pot with boiling water first! :-)

  • Lili

    I’m an American that likes good tea. I’ve resorted to carrying my own tea and just buying hot water (i.e. at coffee shops). They generally have cream available for free.

    • Roadfamily6now

      it seems silly you have to buy the WATER but get the cream for free! LOL

  • Tim Devine

    We Canadians, especially those who are British decendants are also passionate about our tea. One year, while the family was visiting the mouse in Florida, my wife was desperate to have a decent cup of tea. I told the eife I would try toget her a cup. When the waitress approached, I asked if she knew how to brew a proper cup of tea. She replied “I should bloddy well hope so”. Turns out she was working on atemporary visa, and was from Liverpool. The cup of tea she made US was one of the best we ever tasted.

    • Josie

      What a neat story. I am sure that just made your day. Even when having a lovely time on vacation, sometimes, we crave that little touch of home. Finding it can make everything else just that much better.

  • Suzanne Vanderwiel

    I work at Cost Plus World Market which is an import chain in the US. We have Twinings imported from England, PG Tips, TyPhoo, and we have Builders Tea as well as others. So if a Brit is in the US, I suggest they find a World Market.

    • hoppytoad79

      I wish we had World Market in Upstate NY. Ah, well. We have Wegmans, and they have all the teas you mention except Builders.

      If you ask for hot tea in a restaurant, do not be surprised at all to get a no name tea that makes a perfectly lousy cuppa. Do not be surprised at all to be charged $2 for that perfectly lousy cuppa.

      • Carole

        Not to mention that they bring you a cup of hot water (not boiling) and the tea bag is on the side. UGH!

    • Karen

      To take that a step further, Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the Virginia suburbs of DC, has taken the food portion of World Market and bought it and placed it inside of their store. I was there just before Christmas and noticed all but Builders Tea, though I’d never heard of it so didn’t think to notice it. There were many British products and I finally found Irish Hard Cider, Magnum’s, if I remember, being the brand I had in pubs around Britain. Yum!

  • Caryn

    I find this amusing, but not in a condescending way. I grew up in a family that had tea – black, strong, dissolve-the-enamel-off-your-teeth tea – every evening with dinner. My sister had a pen pal who lived in England and when she went to the UK for a visit, her pen pal’s mother was aghast when my sister told her she drinks her tea “plain.” “You mean you drink it black?!” I still laugh at this story. The next day my sister introduced this family to PB&J sandwiches – peanut butter and jelly (jam). Neat cultural education. :-)

  • Monkey_pants

    ” . . . fancier tea bags, like Twining’s and Bigelow . . .” LOL – really? If this is the Brits idea of fancy tea, it’s no wonder they insist on putting milk in it!

    • GoldenGirl

      Agreed. I’ve never considered Twinings and certainly Bigelow as fancy tea.

  • commish24

    Toni, there are lots of places in the US where people understand good tea. Almost every supermarket in my small town in South Carolina has a nice variety of choices now. The worst places are the Starbucks!

  • Rachael

    Yey for Yorkshire tea being imported is all I can say!

  • GoldenGirl

    I find that Weiss, Martins or Giant and Wal-mart depending on where you live are now carrying more British brands including PG and Tetley. Wegman’s has an international aisle where you can purchase Yorshire Tea as well as the ones I just mentioned.

  • Pauline Wiles

    Tetley’s British Blend is now my go-to tea. But I will never reconcile myself to putting cream (or, heaven forbid, half and half) in it. Just a splash of nice, fresh, milk. Ta.

    • Joe

      Why would you act as thought half-and-half is the worst of the worst (it’s actually half milk and half light cream)? Ooooh… heaven forbid! Even light cream is just slightly heavier than full-fat milk. There’s a difference between that and “heavy” cream, you know. “Heavy,” “light,” and so forth are even printed on the package.

      In any case, à chacun son goût.

  • Joellen

    A Long Island Iced Tea has vodka, gin, rum, and triple sec, no tequila. A Texas tea has the tequila. Both very tasty though.

    • Michele

      NO, it has tequila in it

    • 402

      I went to Western Illinois University (We’re Intoxicated Undergraduates WIU)

      0.25 oz.

      Tanqueray® London Dry Gin

      0.25 oz.

      Smirnoff No. 21® Vodka

      0.25 oz.

      Captain Morgan® Silver Spiced Rum

      0.25 oz.

      Jose Cuervo Especial® Gold Tequila

      0.25 oz.

      triple sec

      1 oz.

      sweet & sour mix

      6 oz.



      lemon wedge(s)

  • Cynthia Daniels

    I’m an American and I prefer hot tea to iced tea. I get very aggravated when a waiter brings me a huge coffee cup for my tea and NO saucer.How are you going to get the right ratio of water for your tea bag with a gigantic coffee mug? Where do they think I am going to put my wet tea bag? I emphatically tell them NO LEMON, I HATE LEMON and they still bring it to me. I often have to ask repeatedly for cream and packets of Splenda. Another thing that annoys me is when they have really cheap no-name teabags and charge you $2.00 for a cup of tea!

    • Judi Jones

      and if you want a refill you have to re-use the old bag !! pitiful !

  • Sarah E. Pierson

    This is all fascinating I learned to drink and enjoy hot tea (yes, I’m an American) when I visited Russia for a couple of weeks when I was 17. I have always preferred it black (hot or cold). In Russia it is the primary drink for most meals and I love the tea glass holders they use.

    • HomeLessCide

      and the way the older folks will hold a sugar cube in their teeth as they drink is unique too

  • Irontimelord

    being a mad scientist with a teapot (which has turned out some good stuff for the record), I found that certain juices can make certain teas much better, plus it can also (obviously) help cool the tea if it’s too hot for your liking (chilled not iced at best).

    • kfield2

      OK,this is what I was waiting for. I grew up with hot tea or hot chocolate on cold winter mornings before the school day when I was a wee little one. Usually, it was tea, with milk. But, if I got a sore throat, Mom would get orange juice and add it to the very sweetened hot tea. If I wasn’t sick enough to stay home from school, she’d send me in with a thermos of that same tea. I’m sure it had to be Lipton’s as that was all we had available in small town Williamsburg, Va. Yes, the non-historical part of that Williamsburg. The opening of that thermos and the heavenly scent which poured out of it was a taste of love and home to me. I get weird stares even from Americans when I mention that. I’ll tell you something weirder, especially to you Brits, my favorite iced tea as an adult is sweet iced tea with a Lime slice to squeeze in it. It just gives it that much more of a tropical taste. And since I’m from the South, I drink a lot of iced tea!

  • Brittany

    I usually get Twinnings at my local store. I like sugar and soy creamer in mine.

  • Femfelis

    I’ve been drinking Twining’s since 1980, the first time my late husband and I visited England. The first time I asked for a cuppa, I decided to try it with milk (when in Rome, and all that). WOW! That’s pretty much how I drink most (but not all) varieties of black tea–though not green or white teas. The Kroger grocery chain carries Twining’s and PG Tips, which I keep stocked in my house. I’ll have to look for some of the other brands mentioned in these comments!

  • Brenda Creamer Maines

    I’m American but a New Englander and enjoy a good pot of tea. If I must use bags I can get PG Tibs here but I buy loose teas from Upton Tea Imports. I highly recommend

  • lindsey

    I love tea, hot and iced. I don’t understand how iced tea is so weird. You don’t put milk in it.. obviously… just sugar and possibly some lemon. So long as its not the powdered mix kind it it delicious.
    For hot tea I prefer black tea with just a bit of sugar and a splash of milk. Usually I use Tetley British Blend since it’s the best of the least expensive here. Occasionally I will splurge and get a good Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea. I just use tea bags since I’m a busy college student and don’t have time to be boiling entire pots all the time or fiddling with loose tea leaves.

    • Michael

      In Canada (west Coast) the iced tea available in restaurants is the powdered mess. I kept accidentally ordering it, since it was impossible to believe that this abomination was the only iced tea available. We had started eating regularly at a mid level chain, local to BC (white something). So one day, I looked at our waiter and ask if it would be possible to get a cup of hot tea and a large glass completely filled with ice. The waiters response was– OMG YOU’RE AMERICANS, but your so nice!!! We started laughing, and I got my first proper iced tea in Canada. The waiter spent the rest of the meal apologizing, which we assured him was perfectly alright, that we understood his reaction. The next day we returned to CA, with this story and our fond memories of Canada.

  • LadyClodia the Modest Rat

    I love a good cup of hot tea, and I usually drink several a day. I probably like my tea stronger than most, but I’m not usually too picky. Although trying to order a cup of hot tea at a restaurant is usually pretty unpleasant. I don’t know of any sit-down restaurant that will actually bring boiling (or close enough to boiling) water, and it’s not possible to make a good cup of tea with only slightly hot water. I’m sure it’s because they don’t want some idiot burning themselves. So when I’m out I usually order iced tea (not sweet tea!) because that’s harder to mess up.

    Oh and when my Dutch mother-in-law was visiting, she would only dunk the tea bags long enough to give the water color, but she wouldn’t let them steep at all. I quickly learned to decline offers because I didn’t want to have to tell her that she was doing it wrong.

  • Judi Jones

    I sympathize with you, I prefer my tea “British style” and am very fussy about preparation. Microwave tea ? ghastly ! It must be hot water from a kettle on the stove and would never let it steep longer than 3-5 mins. I fortunately live close to the Canadian border so I purchase my tea over there, they are of a much better quality (i don’t know why) and taste better. They also have “table cream” for coffee and tea which is very decadent (18% milk fat) I splurge on the rare occasion and get some. The only time I can rely on a decent cup of tea is when I visit relatives in Canada, make it at home or I’m visiting the UK !

    • hoppytoad79

      I suspect the quality is better in Canada because Canada never turned its back on things British, so they never lost an understanding of what a good cuppa is. Being stuck in a land of people who have no idea how to make a decent cuppa is just one reason I sorely want to buy a one way ticket across the Pond ASAP (regular access to the Beeb is another).

  • searsmith

    One of the problems with tea in America (and I’m American) is that many restaurants and cafes serve only herbal teas, which I don’t consider tea at all! It can be difficult to find a proper black tea (or even a green tea, although green tea or oolong are often served at Chinese restautrants).

  • Aberdonian

    Nato standard is usually the way i take it (milk 2 sugars). Generally the way to go.

  • Erik

    I can only speak for the left coast, but you can find anything you want in the way of tea in California. Just remember that you are not only among those of us who prefer iced tea, but also among tea drinkers from China, Japan, Thailand, India, and Pakistan (among other places), all of whom have their own ideas about tea. Just ask for what you want specifically, because the next bloke probably wants something completely different. I sometimes like a cup of Earl Gray (loose leaf, but I do not turn my nose up at a tea bag), but coffee really is more the national drink here.

    • $21404289

      Earl Grey!!!!!!!! GREY!

      • Jasmine Baggenstos

        It’s perfectly fine to spell it either way.

        • $21404289

          Whatever you say, Jesmine.

          • kfield2

            Since the tea was named for (or by?) THE Earl Grey, I believe seatofmars has the right of it. I enjoy Lady Grey tea, myself. Is that a tea made in honor of her or was it a johnny-come-lately tea?

  • David Hawley

    I look for tea in special stores where the local Indian population shop . If you want, you can get Tetley, PG tips, Yorkshire and many of the familiar UK brands, loose tea as well as bags, along with the (usually cheaper and very good) Indian brands. Don’t waste your money in the big supermarkets. All the Indians I work with know their tea and they won’t pay over the odds for it.

    The Indian shops are also good for other basics like rice, fruit and veg and sometimes, Horlicks and Marmite. My local shop also sells cricket balls!

  • colinmeister

    Tea in America is usually very badly made. Ginger Baker has some views on the subject, and put them forward with a group he played with, Masters Of Reality, on the album Sunrise on the Sufferbus in a track called T.U.S.A. (Available on YouTube)

    The whole problem is that a lot of Americans try to make tea with hot, not boiling water – guaranteed to fail.

  • Jasmine Baggenstos

    I tried my tea with milk once, but I rather just prefer it plain or with a little sugar.
    I’m a little confused by all the people saying Americans go about making their tea with hot instead of boiling water. I suppose it may be that way at a coffee shop or restaurant where you can’t just keep boiling water on hand all the time, but I’ve always boiled my water at home.
    No one person has to be wrong in their tea drinking. If you like it that way (whatever way) it’s your prerogative. :]

  • Josie

    This American girl was raised on the original Tetley blend orange pekoe and cut pekoe black teas before they came up with decaf and British blend and the special iced tea blend. It might not be the best in the world, but once a taste is set in childhood, it’s very hard to lose.
    I’ve tried Twining’s English breakfast tea, but it’s just too mild for my tastes. I like my hot tea, sweet, milky, and strong, but not bitter, so with Tetley, you really have to watch your brew time. I also drink it iced with lots of sugar in the summer time. Still, even when I feel as if I am about to fly apart at the seams, a good, hot cup of tea is all it takes to put me back together.
    Another delicious tea that I have recently discovered is Twining’s Earl Grey K-Cups, but not having the brewing machine at home, I can only enjoy it when sitting in hospital waiting rooms, and really, that somehow takes some of the joy out of it.

  • Daisy

    I know there are people who like milk or cream in their tea, but not many Americans do. Even those of us with British ancestry still prefer lemon and maybe something to sweeten it, such as honey or sugar or the artificial sweetners. A lot of us do like hot tea, such as myself, but iced tea is not only a summer drink, but a lunchtime drink as well.. I have tried so many different varieties of tea myself that it would be hard to settle on just one. I have a few favorites, but I’m not very rigid as long as it ISN’T Tetley, which has a strong, rather nasty taste. I don’t know what sort of leaf they used, but I can always tell when any tea is made from that particular leaf, and I only drink it when I have no way to get out of it. and no amount of disguising it will help.

  • malita

    And when going to a restaurant it’s best to bring your own tea bag – I’m an American – but a big hot tea drinker – I live in the south. You can get iced tea at any restaurant year round, but you’d be amazed how many spots you can’t get hot tea, even in the winter. If they do offer hot tea it’s usually a collection of bags that they have to dust off they are so old.

  • Neil

    I’ve kinda gotten used to Tetleys British Blend tea bags – always a treat though to get Typhoo when my family visit!

  • Aila

    This is the most bizarre article about American tea drinking I have ever seen. I have never in all my American tea drinking life ever been so confused at how someone can have so many problems with tea here in America. Like you mentioned earlier in America, you first either order iced or hot tea. Once hot, you can ask for BLACK tea, or green tea if they have if, and then ask for some milk with it too if that’s your fancy, which is mine when I get black tea, but you make it sound like it’s pulling teeth. Americans are very big tea drinkers – it’s just more more common outside of the south to go with the healthier-Asian route of green tea with nothing added to it except maybe a bit of honey or lemon. We like to actually taste the tea, hence why the various flavors are popular. If that’s just too adventurous to you, stick to “Black tea”, but try to keep in mind that maybe the vinegar in your diet has ruined your taste buds.

    And no, it’s not Jasmine Orange tea you’re seeing at Starbucks, It’s Orange Blossom green tea which is fantastic with a bit of lemon when you feel a cold coming on. There’s a big difference between Jasmine tea and Green tea lover will tell you. But if you must go with Starbucks for your black tea your safe bet would be the “Awake” tea since that’s the typical black breakfast tea they serve. The other black tea they have is Earl Grey. Thankfully they have a larger variety of herbal and green teas, which are their best sellers.

    You really want some tea? Go to a Teavana which can be found at almost any major American mall.

    • E.M. Davis

      If you were British and you grew up drinking English Breakfast tea the way it is prepared in the UK, you would understand that ordering tea out in the States is usually an awful experience.

  • Lorri

    There are other very good American brands like Stash. They make a great Earl Grey. Comes in small boxes, so a more expensive choice, but worth it.

  • Virginia A Smith

    For all you Yanks, here’s how a proper cuppa is made in England!

  • Lonewriter

    Yes, I’m American and I have never had hot tea in my life. I just have to ask, what does “Shall I be mother?” mean?

    • $21404289

      “Shall I pour out the tea?” As in serve it from the teapot.

  • Alice

    The Boston Tea Party left its mark! ‘Tea’ still sounds rather girly and insipid to many people here, perhaps from not knowing how to make it properly, I don’t know. Coffee is generally considered a much more appropriate and ‘manly’ drink, and much more American. Tea is something for ladies to drink, or British people, or if you’re cutting back on caffeine.

    It’s all a bit silly, really. :) But I must admit to always being surprised at first whenever I hear a British reference to men drinking tea. My first thought is of the rather flavorless stuff over here that most of the time, men wouldn’t drink, much less enthuse about or look forward to. That would be coffee. Strong coffee!

    Personally, I only drink herbal teas and “coffees,” which probably puts me on everyone’s bad list, LOL. I don’t care.

  • Sto Pro Veritate

    Make Mine a Builders is now available in over 250 ‘World Market’ stores across the USA and online at Here is a link to the source of all your pleasure! Evidently, one can order on line to your heart’s content. Enjoy!
    By the way, I am American, go to Canada a lot, and for about thirty years went to Ontario and bought Red Rose tea 300 or so at a time, because it was not in the US until
    a few years ago. I drink about ten cups a day, and no coffee, I am a grown up now, and I put tea in my tea, and no sugar or milk. I gave up sugar at about 8, and milk at 12 years. You big sissies! I do not drink decaffeinated tea, it is an abomination. TA!

  • L. Wilms

    As a Canadian living in the U.S., I stock up on tea when we go home to visit family. Even though I drink regular old Teltley (or some other orange peko vatiety) which is available here in the U.S., the Canadian teas are way better. Down here, if you do find stringless tea bags, the caffeine content is less. I don’t know if that’s the only difference or not, but I can sure notice the difference in quality.

    Years ago when I lived in Texas, if I ordered a “hot tea with a bit of milk” it would arrive with a lemon on the side of the cup; inevitably causing the milk to curdle. Yuck.

  • Lrc

    Find a local Indian supermarket or shop they all carry
    PG tips and Typhoo usually.Or buy online from a British

  • Perry

    After the Boston Tea Party, whaddaya expect?

  • Lynn A.

    Not all Americans are satisfied with the bland tea dust found in bags sold under the premis of “tea.”Should you like to avail yourself of some very excellent teas for proper brewing. Do check out this New England tea website:

  • a dude of dudes

    ice teas are the best.

  • David Carman

    Tea, apart from being THE British drink of choice, is so English that it has fallen into the category of infamy rather than fame. Tea should be served at certain times, prepared in certain ways, be made with certain constituent parts (REAL tea, not tea bags), real milk (not UHT), and should be also be served in a certain way (china cups and saucers, sugar lumps not granulated, tea pot not brewed in the cup and certainly not in a mug – heaven forfend). Email me for more information on REAL ENGLISH (not British) etiquette regarding the real thing. Oh, and by the way, real tea is leaf tea, not powdery rubbish from supermarkets. I can supply boxed tea direct from India importers here in the UK.

  • Nic

    Tea is served iced with lots of sugar in it. We call it sweet tea.

  • Dillon Zhong

    in malls recently, i noticed that there is a store called teavana. they sell more of the asian variety of tea, and i drink asian tea. what i don’t get is their thousands of varieties of weird fruity spiced teas. i especially despise cinnamon, because it just feels like it takes away all the point of tea. why not drink cinnamon in water?

  • Jonny

    It’s just tea, right? Not like it’s coffee. ha ha ha