Which first: milk or tea?

on August 13, 2020

Few questions in the history of our world have been as polarising as this one.

Lovers of tea have studied the history, social etiquette and even the science behind serving tea the right way to find which is the proper way to drink tea.

The proper brew

In an interview on BBC Three, royal butler Grant Harrold revealed that since the 18th century, the British royal custom is to pour hot tea in your cup first, then milk. However, the majority of the British public pours milk in first, and then tea. As with everything in the British society, it’s a matter of status.

The high society used fine China cups which do not crack when hot tea was poured into it directly. People who were unable to afford fine china would use porcelain cups which were subject to cracking due to intense heat. As a result, milk was poured in first.

In India, we find that people tend to do both, and for different reasons.

A scientific perspective

After a series of experiments, Dr. Stapley of Loughborough University established that putting the tea in first is the correct way. He elaborates that when we add the milk in after the boiling water, it causes the milk to heat unevenly. This uneven heating of the milk causes the proteins in it to denature which causes the milk proteins to “clump.” This also leads to the formation of the skin you get on the top of tea.

Tea Master’s note

Based on my studies there is no correct way. Whatever brews the perfect cup which satisfies your soul is right. As a purist, I personally prefer to add the milk later as it helps me control the color of the cup and since I don’t like my tea milky, I prefer this route. The tea also makes a difference. Strong teas like CTC and english breakfast provide a lot more margin for error when adding milk. One should take care to ensure that the milk is piping hot, else it waters the tea down and cools it too rapidly.