Do you add milk to your tea, or are you a staunch ‘tea purist’? There are endless debates on when and how to add milk, and why. Many cultures around the world put milk in their tea, so let’s examine this divisive issue.
History of adding milk to tea
Many assume that adding milk to tea started in England, but that’s not actually the case. The British didn’t start drinking tea until the 17th century, whereas dairy may have been added to tea in Tibet as early as 781, when tea was introduced to Mongolia from China.
In India, milk is an integral part of masala chai, and its history may have started thousands of years ago as an Ayurvedic beverage. But tea leaves didn’t make their way into the drink until British tea farms were established in the mid-1800s.
The term for tea with milk will depend on what culture is adding it, but it can generally just be called ‘milk tea’. As you’ll see, there are many varieties and styles to enjoy. But first, let’s answer the burning question of ‘why’?
Why add tea to milk?
So, people do add milk to tea. But why? It’s tough pinpoint exactly, but there are quite a few theories that make sense.
The quality of the tea coming over to Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries had much to be desired. Long sea voyages, improper storage, and even adulterated tea leaves often left brews unpalatable. One theory is that milk was added to these teas to even out the taste and tame the harsh flavors.
Another theory during this time period involves European-made porcelain tea cups. These early European cups were very fragile and valuable, and adding hot tea sometimes caused them to crack. Pouring a bit of cold milk to the cups first would temper the cup, and lower the temperature of the tea being added, thus protecting the teacups from cracking.
Nutrition also comes into play. As we mentioned, Tibetan teas contain dairy to add nutrition and stave off hunger. This is a similar reason why working-class Brits added milk to their teas during the industrial revolution. ‘Builder’s Tea’ was a sweet, milky brew intended to keep workers going throughout the day.
In general, adding milk to teas that are high in tannins such as black tea will significantly smooth out the brew. The tannins lead to bitterness and also astringency, which is a drying sensation on the palate. Milk binds to the tannins and also adds a little bit of natural sweetness, evening out the flavor. This also helps with black tea blends that may be low in quality and therefore even higher in tannins.
Teas Appropriate For Milk
Teas that have a longer oxidation will be higher in tannins, therefore are strong, and astringent enough to hold up to milk. Many black tea blends such as breakfast blends are created with the idea that milk will be added after brewing. They are made to be extra strong to stand up to the milk.
There are other black teas processed to brew quickly and become very strong. These are called CTC which stands for ‘crush, tear, curl’. They are black tea leaves processed into small pellets, which infuse very quickly in hot water. Due to the strong brew they produce, it’s perfect for adding a splash milk.
There are ‘orthodox’ or whole-leaf black teas that also work with milk, such as Assam and Ceylon teas, also black teas from Kenya. You could consider a stronger Chinese black tea such as Keemun a good option as well.
Any bold black tea would be a good candidate for adding milk, but we recommend that all teas should be tasted without any additives first, to get a good idea of the flavor. If after tasting you decide to add milk, great! You should enjoy teas any way you like them. But be sure to taste them without milk first.
Of the teas we offer at Té, our Jade Rouge would be appropriate for milk as it’s sweet and full-bodied. Our Stonegate Breakfast and Formosa Assam would also do well. Stonegate Breakfast is made in the style of a Chinese Keemun, so it’s fragrant and full-bodied. The Formosa Assam is malty and fruity, strong enough for milk if you so desire.
Types of tea with milk preparations
Milk tea is enjoyed world-wide in various ways, both cold and hot. Here are a few ways to enjoy it:
- Tea latte –Tea (can be any type of tea) with steamed or frothed milk added. It can be sweetened or unsweetened.
- Boba Tea – Or bubble tea, a milk tea from Taiwan with added tapioca pearls popular around the world. Usually served cold and with some level of sweetness.
- Hong Kong Style – a combination of strong black tea and evaporated or condensed milk usually served hot.
- Masala Chai – Indian Assam tea boiled with various spices and milk until strong and spicy.
- London Fog - A tea latte that combines Earl Grey black tea with frothed milk, and often a hint of vanilla.
- Builder’s Tea - A strong black tea with milk and sugar added. The term is still colloquially used in the UK today, and blends are still sold for ‘builder’s brew’.
- Teh Tarik - Means ‘pulled tea’. Popular in Southeast Asia, it is black tea blended with condensed milk. The mixture is poured back and forth between two vessels to give it a light and frothy texture.
- East Frisian Tea - A unique tea custom in a small corner of Germany where cream and rock sugar are ritualistically added to strong black tea.
Health benefits of adding milk to tea
You may have heard that adding milk to tea will dull its health benefits. It’s tough to say for sure if there are any positive or negative effects of adding milk to your tea, studies have been inconclusive. Proteins in milk do bind to the antioxidants in tea which could counteract the absorption of their helpful nutrients, but it’s difficult to determine how much of this is actually happening. Absorption may be just slowed, not completely blocked.
Adding milk may make tea easier on an empty stomach, or for those that have a sensitive stomach to begin with as it eases the tannins. But again this is based completely on your own individual experience.
Milk to tea ratio
Adding milk to tea is a personal preference, we always recommend trying the tea straight before adding anything to it. If you going to add milk, a ratio of ¼ milk (or less) for one serving of tea is ideal.
Do you add your tea first, or your milk first? This is an age-old debate, so it’s really up to you. We prefer to brew the tea to its desired strength, pour it into the cup and then add milk in order to know exactly how much milk is needed.
Single Serve Brew (See ratios)
1/4 cup milk
1 cup brewed tea.
- Heat your water to boiling
- Measure tea into your brewing vessel
- Pour in water
- Brew to your desired strength.
- Remove leaves and pour tea into a cup
- Add about 1/4 cup milk, or to taste.