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Should you add milk to tea, or tea to milk?

Both the milk-in-first and tea-in-first proponents claim their method is superior. But is anyone really right?

Everyone seems to have an opinion on making the best cup of tea. People who have weighed in on this topic range from royal butlers to George Orwell, but despite many claims of it being definitively settled—often by science—the debate rages on.

From the ideal water temperature to the source of the tea leaves, the best material for a pot (china, earthenware, or pewter, according to Orwell, never silver!), the best shape of a cup, or whether it is sacrilege to add sugar, there are a lot of variables in brewing tea. However, one of the most hotly contested ones is not whether to add milk or not, but in what order.

Adding milk to tea has a few benefits, according to the experts. It can help counteract the tannin’s astringent or bitter aspects and adds a few calories and nutrients to an otherwise nutritionally bereft beverage. Modern research also shows that adding milk can decrease the staining effects of tea on teeth and, presumably, mugs and pots as well.

A commonly circulated theory posits that first pouring milk into a china teacup helps avoid the heat shock of directly filling it with hot fresh tea and stops low-quality china from cracking. Some sources claim that the practice of pouring tea into a cup before milk, therefore, became a subtle way to brag about the quality of your china. While it’s hard to validate this theory, tea before milk is the preferred pouring order of the British Royal Family, who are likely to take an opportunity to boast their riches.

Regardless of its origins, almost all guides and sources now agree that tea should be poured into a cup first and milk (if desired) second. As for the claims that science has somehow settled this debate, besides a few industry-funded “studies” (really more like PR stunts) and a press release from the Royal Society of Chemistry based on research that was either never done or never published, I can’t find any actual scientific discussion of whether it’s better to add your milk or tea to your mug first.

Although, if a research group wants to study this in the future, they’ll likely benefit from ISO 3103, a publication from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) that details standardized steps with which to brew a cup of tea for the purposes of comparison. The ISO is a non-governmental organization that exists for the express purpose of developing standards that are applicable across all 167 member countries for technical and manufacturing purposes. ISO 3103 was approved by all member countries, with the exception of Ireland, which objected on technical grounds due to the omission of a teapot warming step.

As I said, almost everyone seems to have strong opinions on this topic. I think I’ll be keeping my tea-brewing method to myself.


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