The following posts have no fixed theme or style, but I hope you enjoy reading them!

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Milk in tea, Part III

-on when to add milk; a literature review

Tea with milk is clearly a controversial issue and has been for many years. The number of comments on my first post on the subject is testimony to that. However, the problem does not stop at “would you like milk with that?” There is much more debate to be had about when to add the milk. If you’re using a teapot, should you pour the brewed tea onto the milk, or should you put in the milk afterwards? If you’re teabag dunking, does it make a difference if you put the milk in either before the bag like Housemate Jo), immediately after the water is added or after it is brewed? This all feeds into broader questions of how to make the perfect cup of tea that I won’t discuss here, though I will possibly address them at a later date: Is loose leaf intrinsically better? Should you warm the pot before you use it? With teabags, should the tea be added to boiling water, or should boiling water be added to the tea? The questions never end, and people are extremely vociferous in explaining or defending their views.

George Orwell was one of the most influential people to have entered the debate. He wrote an entire essay on the subject entitled “A Nice Cup Of Tea”. In this essay he puts forward his view 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”. This is a controversial view, as he himself admits at another point in the essay. Contradicting advice is given on Wikihow claiming that milk should be added first. Of course it is not quite that simple. Tea companies give their own advice: Tetley advises us to add milk after brewing when using teabags. Twinings (being a more upper class brand), focuses on loose leaf tea: “Pour a little milk into each cup before pouring the tea through a strainer if necessary, and sweeten as required.” A representative of Yorkshire tea called Simon gives his personal view although he seems to accept views from both sides in the debate - “If the tea is being poured from a teapot, milk in the cup first. If the tea is being made in the mug or cup, milk should go in last. Others may say the other way around but that is my personal preference.” First Class Teas is equally equivocal in their fun, quirky way: “There are many different schools of thought on how to brew tea, and that's before we even think about pre-tea milk-pouring issues! One of the great intrigues of tea is the personal discovery of one's own styles and tastes, and as such I don't like to dictate to people what they should or shouldn't do. After all, if you like something and it isn't causing any harm, who's to tell you it's wrong?”

Some people have tried to describe the reasoning behind different opinions. According to this website, for example, “Some people saying that the milk should be poured in first and others saying that the tea is poured first. Obviously as a nation we have got used to brewing tea in a mug. This way the tea is always added first. However, to make a real cup of English tea the milk is always added to the cup first, followed by the tea.” i.e. tea should not be brewed with milk present; to avoid that, milk should be added after if dunking a bag, but before if using a teapot.
A BBC article believes that traditions dictate the correct answer on this. It says that adding milk before the tea is better, but that “This is socially incorrect. The socially correct way of pouring tea is to put the milk in after the tea. Social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics.”
The people responsible for tea’s inclusion as an official icon of England (a project from the government department of culture) wrote about tea and milk, explaining more debating points about milk in tea. It says that there are class issues behind it, as there are with most things in Britain. Poor quality china was used by the middle classes during the 1700s, which would crack at high temperatures, as opposed to the fine china of the aristocracy or earthenware of the working class. The price of milk was apparently a factor in the amount of milk to add too.

From weebl and bob (my favourite online duo) to tea museum founder Edward Bramah to Steven Hawking, everyone has an opinion.

So how can we lay this matter to rest? I suggest two possibilities: conventional wisdom and science.
Conventional wisdom is hopefully expressed in the British standard BS6008 (here, though I think you’ll have to pay to see it. It's the effectively the same as ISO 3103 although I believe the Brits got there first), used for tea tasting. It says for 5.6g tea, half a pint of boiling water should be added and it should be brewed for 6 mins. Milk should be added before the tea (5ml), but if you insist on adding it afterwards, it should be added when liquid is 65-80 degrees. It adds that milk sometimes helps to accentuate differences in flavour and colour.
Real scientific peer-reviewed work was done on it too, as reported by the guardian here. And there is agreement! Again, milk should be added before the tea. The scientific argument is that milk poured onto boiling water is heated more quickly because the surface area of the milk is higher, increasing the risk of denaturing the proteins in the water, which is bad for the taste.

So do we have an answer? The problem will never solved completely, but it looks like the evidence is just starting to lead to putting the milk in first if you add tea from a pot. Results also suggest that you should add the milk after when dunking a teabag.

I am currently carrying out systematic taste tests to see if any of this actually makes a difference or whether the whole thing is a storm in a teacup (sorry I couldn’t resist). I’ll report back to you, probably next month.

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