The Reason Why People Started Putting Milk In Tea

Milk: to add or not to add?  Swathes of tea lovers will swear against putting milk of any kind in a brew, others cannot stomach tea without it — that is, if you’re from a country where black teas are the norm.

In Britain, adding milk to tea is a no-brainer for most given that plain black tea tends to be very bold and bitter in flavour. Adding a splash of milk (and maybe even some sugar) goes a long way and will smoothen out your tea. But it all depends on your preference. The bold and bitter tones of black tea may be the exact thing you’re looking for!

Below is a run down on the history of milk in tea and whether it actually is superior to plain teas such as green or white. 

Why do people put milk in tea?

Putting milk in tea, thanks to the popularity of builder’s tea, does seem like an English invention, but dairy in tea may go back as far as 781 in Tibet, when tea was introduced to Mongolia from China. Tea after all, didn’t reach England until the 17th century. 

In 1655, Jean Nieuhoff, a Dutch traveller had tea with milk at a banquet in Canton hosted by Chinese Emperor Shunzhi. Fifteen years later, Madame de la Sabliere, made history by serving tea with milk at her Paris salon, and has been subsequently credited with introducing the addition to Europe.

How much milk should you put in tea?

Like all food and drink ingredients, the amount of milk you put in your tea comes down to personal preference but there is a science behind it! A British survey of 2,000 people found that a regular ‘splash’ of milk means 5 millilitres or ⅘ teaspoon, with the consensus being that too much milk can cover the tea’s notes and flavour.

It’s important to remember milk doesn’t suit all teas. Black teas (more or less any English blend) and Assam are your best bets when it comes to milky tea thanks to their bold flavour. Add milk to a white or green tea and you’ll likely drown out all its flavour. The temperature of the milk doesn’t matter. If you prefer a frothier, whip warm milk, knock yourself out!

Should you add milk first or last?

So the story goes, when tea first came to Britain the cups were so fragile punters would put a few drops of milk in at the bottom to prevent the boiling water cracking them. Only after a few decades did practicality make way for personality. Putting milk in your tea is nothing more than an intolerance to plain tea. 

At what point you add milk to tea may seem irrelevant, and to a casual tea drinker it probably is. But if you’re a bit more keen and wanting to get the absolute most of your brew, add the milk last. Allow the tea to brew so you can check for its colour and aroma before adding the final silky touches. Do the opposite and you’ll never be able to tell when your tea has reached its full potential. 

Does milk make tea taste better?

It depends on the person drinking it. If you have a sweet tooth, milk will without a doubt make tea taste better. Black teas are high in tannins, which create their bitter and bold flavour. Such astringency can leave your palate dried out. Adding milk to the equation means binding those tannins with natural sweetness and something that will smoothen out the flavour.

Remember to add the milk at the end. Adding milk first lowers the temperature of the water and comes between a proper infusion of your brew. Let the tea sit on its own for five minutes before dropping in a milk of your choice.

Is milky tea healthier?

Though there have been countless studies for and against the use of milk in tea, there is no consensus. Milk is abundant in nutrients like protein, calcium, and potassium — all of which are crucial for growth, body composition, and bone health. Combining milk and tea, however, may nullify these benefits. 

While one study in over 1,800 people in China found that tea and milk consumption were independently linked a lower oral cancer risk, other studies have suggested that the proteins in milk could interfere with the absorption and antioxidant activity of the tea’s compounds. A study of 16 adult women found drinking 2 cups or 500 ml of black tea increased blood flow significantly. Drinking black tea with milk did not have the same effect. 

Do milk alternatives work well in tea?

Historically, dairy has been the main option for tea when it comes to adding milk, specifically yak butter with Tibetan butter tea or buffalo milk in Indian chai. Today, the climate is a little bit different. More and more customers are wanting to enjoy a nice brew without squeezing the business end of a cow. 

Luckily, there are dozens of milk alternatives that are commonplace in any high street coffee shop or tea house. Almond milk is one the most popular choices. Not too watery, it has a gentle flavour that blends effortlessly with black teas. 

Oat milk is the closest thing you’ll get to dairy milk in terms of thickness, though the strong oaty taste may not suit everyone. Coconut milk is too watery for black teas but works well for matcha lattes if not green teas. 

Avoid soy milk, which is generally not recommended as a dairy alternative thanks to its propensity to curdle and separate in hot temperatures. Unless you’re the type of tea lover who likes to walk on the wild side and drink lumpy brews, give this one a miss. 

Josh Teal

Josh Teal is a freelance writer with wit and verve, powered by copious amounts of tea and coffee. That makes him something of an expert in all things brewing, whether it's for you or for your pets!

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