Let’s consider taking afternoon tea, and let’s imagine we are drinking Earl Grey tea. Now, like most teas (excepting perhaps oolong or green teas), Earl Grey can be taken with milk or lemon, but not both. Today we are taking our Earl Grey with the former. We are all set – we have a pot of freshly brewed tea, china cups and saucers, a strainer replete with its little bowl; sugar cubes and silver tongs, a little jug of organic milk. Good company and rounds of English cucumber sandwiches and freshly baked scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam finish the scene.
An immediate quandary. Does one pour the milk, followed by the tea, or pour the tea, followed by the milk?
Before perhaps the early 1700s, European tea cups were typically made from a soft paste porcelain which tended not to fare well with very hot tea, and would be liable to cracking. Adding milk first ameliorates this since the hot tea makes contact with the milk rather than the porcelain directly. Hence milk was added first to stop these cups from cracking. Thus there was an association between having cheaper porcelain tableware and putting the milk in first when pouring tea. Clearly if one was fortunate (and wealthy) enough to have better porcelain, then it was not necessary to temper one’s tea with milk added a priori to one’s cup. Hence perhaps pouring milk in first is a habit we have retained from the times when only the rich could afford decent porcelain. Hence pouring tea first was something of an indicator that the pourer was wealthy.
I propose that such ideas, whilst quaint, have no real place in the mind of the English Gentleman. Having said that, I think one can make something of an argument for the pouring the milk second approach, starting with an observation from that great chronicler of twentieth century’s English culture, George Orwell, who wrote in 1946:
…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.
The English Gentleman would augment Orwell’s argument with the following observation. For tea drinkers who take sugar, adding milk before the sugar (regardless of whether the milk was added before or after the tea), will lead to a less effective dissolution of the sugar. The sugar will dissolve more rapidly in the hotter liquid than the tea-milk mixture. This would strongly suggest that those who prefer sweetened tea should add tea to the naked cup, thence sugar, and thence milk.
But hold on, Mr Orwell. Milk contains – amongst other things – proteins, relatively large and complex molecules which can be damaged (denatured) by heat: for example when milk is added to a relatively large volume of hot tea (milk poured second brigade). Such degradation of proteins (proteolysis) may result in milk with dubious flavour and poor quality. In terms of tea making the biggest risk is perhaps denaturation of the protein ß-lactoglobulin, and although this is advantageous if one is making yoghurt, this is something which the English Gentleman might want to avoid whilst pouring a cup of tea for his lady. It results in a rather unpleasant boiled milk flavour to one’s tea. Furthermore, such denaturing of ß-lactoglobulin makes the protein more able to absorb (or should one say adsorb?) water, thus making the milk less able to form an emulsion with the tea. This would suggest that adding milk to hot tea is less preferable than adding hot tea to the milk.
Let’s draw this discussion to a timely end, with the following conclusion:
Adding milk first has the advantage of avoiding proteolysis of the milk protein, but the clear Orwellian disadvantage of not being able to judge the quantity of milk and hence flavour balance of the tea. On the other hand, adding the milk second allows one to judge the exact amount of milk one wants, albeit with the risk that the overall flavour is impacted. And let us not neglect those who take sugar, recalling that sugar takers should perhaps entertain the idea of adding sugar to the hot tea before the milk.
Goodness me, who would have thought that pouring a cup of tea would be such a complex matter? At the end of the day I venture that there is no right or wrong way regarding milk before or after the tea. It is for the individual tea drinker to decide whether to pour the tea first or pour the milk first. However, rather than sitting on the proverbial fence, this English Gentleman would like to make it known that he always puts the milk in first.