“I compared Starbucks, Costa, Caffè Nero and Pret English Breakfast tea and they all tasted completely different”

As the UK’s favorite flavor of tea, English breakfast is a daily staple in most British diets, with many of us consuming several cups a day. We are also often very picky about how we take it.

However, with back to the office being phased in, many Londoners are once again relying on local coffee chains to provide that much needed morning or afternoon tea. When you walk into the closest you might think, “How different can the same tea really be?” or “English breakfast is English breakfast, isn’t it?”

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It turns out that a “small English breakfast tea with a hint of milk” comes in different shapes, sizes and colors.

You’d be wrong to think that, because it turns out the quality of your takeaway English Breakfast tea varies widely depending on where you get it.

I ordered the exact same tea from Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Caffè Nero and Pret A Manger – a little English Breakfast tea, a pinch of skimmed milk, no sugar, for the record – and they all tasted really, really different. Also, while two were pretty decent for a takeaway tea made by someone else, one lacked flavor and another was a very disappointing size.

Starbucks



I still managed to spill some of my Starbucks tea despite the special lid
I still managed to spill some of my Starbucks tea despite the special lid

The Starbucks English Breakfast Tea was the first version I acquired, from a choice of three sizes. Although I went for small, it was still a very decent size and had a good amount of liquid inside.

Starbucks also swapped out the normal lid for a closed ‘delivery’ lid, so it wouldn’t spill in the bag, which was a smart touch – though I still managed to dislodge mine and cause a minor spill. Surprisingly, although the Starbucks tea took the longest to steep while I grabbed the others, it ended up having the weakest flavor of them all.

Compared to the others, it definitely had less richness and generally felt leaner and more watery. There was also a strange flowery note that I couldn’t put my finger on but definitely felt out of place. This stray note wasn’t necessarily bad so I really tried to look past it but just couldn’t. It kept throwing me off balance every time I took a sip, making me wonder that I had had herbal tea instead of an English breakfast.

A look at the tea bag – Teavana English Breakfast Tea, Starbucks’ own brand – confirmed not. Unfortunately, a closer inspection of the online profile also yielded no clues as to this unexpected floral nuance. The website simply describes it as a “full-bodied black tea with rich, malty undertones,” which is standard for English breakfast and not specific for this tea.

Overall Starbucks tea wasn’t totally terrible. But it was not at all what I expected.

Price: £2.40

Evaluation: 3/5

ready to eat



Pret tea was a decent color in my opinion
Pret tea was a decent color in my opinion

Pret was my second stop and gave away a take out cup which was about the exact same size as my previous Starbucks order. Like Starbucks, Pret also uses its own special tea bag, this time labeled Brekky.

I much, much preferred anything in Brekky to anything in the Starbucks Teavana English Breakfast blend. It was much more like the versions of English Breakfast tea I know and love, with a fuller body. That said, I felt like the flavor could have packed a little more punch, so it didn’t get full marks.

Price: £2.20

Evaluation: 4/5

Costa Coffee



Costa's tea was definitely the greatest and had great flavors
Costa’s tea was definitely the greatest and had great flavors

Despite being the same price at Pret and cheaper than Starbucks and Caffè Nero, Costa Coffee definitely gave me the greatest “little” English breakfast tea. I mean, obviously I didn’t pull out my scale to check, but the cup was noticeably wider and taller.

Costa also had the English Breakfast tea with the best flavor profile, in my opinion – rich, malty and full-bodied but not overwhelming in taste. The label on the tea bag said Fuze Tea, which according to Google appears to be a beverage brand specializing in iced tea. (Fuze and Costa Coffee are both owned by Coca-Cola, so that may explain the crossover.) Unlike other cafes I’d been to, the barista also poured the milk into my tea in front of me. Seemed smart to me since a “dash” means something different to everyone.

Price: £2.20

Evaluation: 5/5

Cafe Nero



The size of Caffè Nero's small tea reminded me more of a to-go espresso cup than any other to-go tea I had ever seen before.
The size of Caffè Nero’s small tea reminded me more of a to-go espresso cup than any other to-go tea I had ever seen before.

Caffè Nero’s English breakfast takeaway tea was surprisingly small. In fact, compared to other “small” teas I had picked up, it looked comically tiny and almost half the size. It bothered me because it’s not like it was cheaper. It was the second most expensive after Starbucks!

(True, only at 10 p.m., but that adds up if you have tea every day.) Due to the small size, my tea also ended up being way too strong and steeped for my liking, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.

Price: £2.30

Evaluation: 2/5

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The verdict

The good news is that it is possible to get a great English Breakfast tea without having to make it yourself. Costa Coffee and Pret A Manger offer more than satisfactory versions.

However, there was a lot more variation in quality between the main UK coffee chains than I expected. I expected them to taste about the same, but it turns out there are a surprising number of variables that affect the end result, from the size of the cup to the tea bag used.

Call me naive, but I had assumed that all cafes would use the same tea bag. In the end, my taste test found Costa Coffee to be the ultimate tea champion, offering both the best value and the best flavor.

Pret, however, was a close second with another fine tea. Starbucks and Caffè Nero came in third and fourth place respectively for weird and nasty flavors, while the latter’s small size impressed me even less. I’ll skip those two for the benefit of the others next time I go for tea.

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