As someone who prefers tea without milk, I consider myself an impartial observer when it comes to that apparently contentious matter of how to actually combine tea and milk.

Milk first, stir - perfect! (screen capture from ETS video)

Milk first, stir – perfect! (screen capture from ETS video)

As a brief aside I’ll note that as I was looking into this matter I came across the phrase “have you milked your tea?” Which dates back to at least 1877. It seems like a term you might use on the farm, but it’s actually just a quaint way of asking if someone has added milk to their tea. Or vice versa.

According to a study that took place about a decade ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry determined that milk first was the way to go. The reason, according to a researcher, “If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk, and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation – degradation – to occur.” The same British paper that reported on this study also allowed readers a separate forum to weigh in on the issue.

More than a half century earlier, in 1946, a prominent British tea lover and writer named George Orwell took the tea first road. He noted in a famous essay about tea, “I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

About a decade earlier than that, scientist Ronald Fisher devised a somewhat famous mathematical experiment to test the assertion of a lady who “claimed to be able to tell whether the tea or the milk was added first to a cup.” Which has more to do with math and probability than with tea but it’s interesting to note even so.

According to some accounts none other than Queen Elizabeth is an adherent of the tea first school of thought, which would be appropriate given her social standing. As the story goes, milk first was a popular tactic for those drinking tea from poor quality china cups that often couldn’t stand up to hot tea. Of course, poor quality china is not an inconvenience the Queen and others in the upper classes have to concern themselves with. Thus the English writer Evelyn Waugh is said to have coined the phrase “rather milk in first” as shorthand for referring to the lower classes.

It’s hard to say exactly when the tea/milk controversy got its start. But one could speculate that it goes back to a time when tea, once a rare and expensive commodity, became more affordable and thus could be consumed by people who had to make do with second rate china.

As for the notion of combining milk and tea, many note that it was mentioned as early as 1680 by a French aristocrat, who claimed that another French noblewoman came up with the idea. Which doesn’t take into consideration that, sometime around 1660, not all that long after tea came to England, tea pioneer Thomas Garraway noted that the tea of that era was sometimes “prepared with Milk and Water.”

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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