A Cup of Irish Tea
It's hard to overestimate the importance of tea in Irish culture. Tea is simultaneously a beverage, a medicine, and a social ritual.
The Irish drink on average four cups of tea a day, amounting to 7 pounds of dried tea leaves over the course of a year — easily the highest rate of per-capita tea consumption in the world. No respectable household would be found without tea, and pubs are legally required to provide it. At breakfast, lunch, and teatime (approximately 4 P.M.), tea is the beverage of choice.
The Anglo-Irish aristocracy introduced tea to Ireland in the nineteenth century. As an import from India, it was too expensive for most Irish people at first, but lower prices and generally improving economic conditions allowed more and more people to try this new taste sensation. Soon the whole nation was hooked. (They pronounced the name of their new drink “tay,” from the French pronunciation.)
A cup of tea is often referred to as a “cuppa” — everyone knows what kind of cup you're talking about. People throughout the country take a break in the mid-afternoon to enjoy a cup of tea and some light snacks such as cookies or finger sandwiches.
The Irish drink tea with sugar and generous amounts of milk. Tea devotees extol the drink's powers to aid digestion, cure headaches, and provide a gentle pick-me-up.
The most renowned tea store in Ireland is Barry's Tea in Cork; they've provided high-grade tea to the people of Munster for over a century. Today, the Barry's brand sells across the country. The most famous place to have a cuppa in Dublin is the original Bewley's Café on Grafton Street, which has brewed tea since the 1840s.
Where Irish Tea Comes From
The Irish tend to prefer stronger tea than the English — they have a saying that a good cup of tea should be “strong enough for a mouse to trot on.” They've gravitated toward East African suppliers, who provide more aromatic leaves.
Irish tea was traditionally made using free leaves, but in recent decades consumers have grown more accepting of tea bags. The Irish maintain very high standards for their tea; consequently, the quality of tea in Ireland is generally much higher than in the United States.
The Irish initially relied entirely on U.K. importers for their tea supply, which became a problem during World War II, when Ireland chose not to ally itself with the United Kingdom. Consequently, the government of Ireland set up Tea Importers (Éire), Ltd., a conglomeration of companies that imported tea directly from the producing countries.
Irish tea consumption continued to increase in the postwar years. In 1973 Ireland had to disband Tea Importers because it violated antimonopoly statutes of the EU, so the business was taken up by the subsidiary companies that had made up the organization.
What's the deal with Irish breakfast tea?
Irish breakfast tea, available from tea purveyors everywhere, is a blend of black teas from the Assam region of India. It contains dark brown leaves that brew a hearty, malty, deep red tea that takes milk and sugar very well — perfect for breakfast.