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Should you add milk to tea?

Should you add milk to tea?

When I first started my tea master training in 2015, my daily tea habit involved drinking English breakfast with milk. This had been my ritual for the previous 25 years.

Both my palette and brain were trained to prefer tea this way. They were attached to the creamy, comforting flavour of the sweet, malty infusion.

During my training, I stopped adding milk. I haven’t drunk tea with milk for almost nine years. Now, it seems like the strangest thing to add to tea. A bit like adding juice to cheap wine which my university friends and I did back in the late 90’s... (1)

The genesis of milky tea 
Himalayan farmers have been adding Yak butter to their tea for an energy boost for centuries. It’s believed this practice of adding dairy to tea spread into some areas of China.

According to Jane Pettigrew in Tea Classified (2), a Dutch delegation visiting China in 1655 were served tea with milk (and salt!) at a banquet given by the Chinese Emperor. 

Adding milk to tea began in Europe in the 17th century, possibly influenced by the experience of the Dutch group in China.

In the 1680s in France, Madame de Sevigne is said to have served black tea with milk (and sugar) and recommended others do the same. This practice may have spread through the upper classes of Europe. Adding milk to tea became commonplace in Britain in the 18th century, with the trend flowing into British colonies.

Why was milk added to tea?
There are two main theories, and I believe are both are likely to be true.

Tea is a delicate leaf that needs to be kept in specific conditions to preserve its flavour integrity. In the 1600s, tea travelled thousands of nautical miles by boat. You can imagine the state it was in once it arrived on European shores after being exposed to air, heat and moisture for months. Adding sweet and fatty milk would have a softening affect, masking the impurities of the travel-worn leaf and smoothing out the astringency of the black tea’s tannins, making the tea more palatable.

In European salons, tea was served in delicate fine bone china, easily cracked by the shock of hot tea being poured into the cup. Adding milk first served to reduce the temperature of the infusion, preserving the fragile teaware.

Do we need to add milk now?
We don’t suffer from either of these problems now. Tea travels at speed to its destination (I can source from garden to my doorstep within a week if I need to) and our teaware is designed to withstand high temperatures.

The fact that adding milk to tea has lasted for almost 400 years is a fascinating example of both the influence of culture, societal norms and our brain wiring (we are wired to prefer certainty so switching to the flavour of tea without milk can feel uncomfortable). And, perhaps, its also down to the continued proliferation of low-quality tea.

How milk affects flavour 
During my tea master training, one of the exercises involved steeping two portions of the same tea side by side, adding milk to one and leaving the other without. The difference in flavour was obvious. Adding milk dulls the overall flavour of the tea and eliminates the more subtle, nuanced aromas you get in good quality tea.

If you do choose to add milk to tea though, the best teas to choose are fully-oxidised black teas from the Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica variety of the tea plant, known for its more robust body and flavour profile, which will hold up better with the addition of milk. These are typically found in teas coming from India (Assam), Sri Lanka and Africa.

Does adding milk make tea less healthy?

Possibly. There are some studies that show adding milk to tea decreases the beneficial effects of tea’s antioxidants (3) and that the casein protein in milk may bind to flavonoids in tea and inhibit their helpful activity in our bodies. (4)

So, should I add milk to tea?
My personal view is that it depends on your personality and the intention of your tea ritual.

What I love about tea is its universal ability to soothe the drinker and bring him or her into a state of calm. It can do this whether you add milk or not.

If you are a curious person with an adventurous palate, I will always recommend you drink tea without anything added so you can experience the full beauty of its flavour and feel the cleansing effect of the infusion in your body.

If you’re someone who prefers comfort and certainty, you should keep adding milk to your tea if this feels right for you.

How to transition from milky tea to straight tea
If you want to move away from milk, you have an exciting adventure ahead of you! As I said above, by design, our brains crave certainty and predictability as this helps us feel safe at the most primal level. This means, any change can feel uncomfortable at first. To get through this, drink tea without milk daily until the flavour starts to feel familiar and ‘less scary’ for your brain.

Each time you prepare your tea, make a deliberate effort to fully engage your senses – look, smell, taste and pay attention to each aspect of the tea. What is the colour in the cup? What is the sensation of the tea in your mouth? Can you describe the aroma notes? How does it feel after you swallow as it moves through your body?

Avoid judging whether you like the tea or not. Simply be curious about what you are experiencing. Over time, you'll find you prefer the flavour of tea without milk.

The debate – milk or tea first?
If you choose to add milk to tea, which is the ‘right’ order?

To me, if we ignore the genteel European tradition of adding tea first then milk, it makes sense - if you are steeping your tea in a teapot - to add the milk into the cup first, before you pour the water over. This quickly blends the milk and tea together, removing the need to stir with a spoon.

If you prepare your tea with a teabag or infuser net directly in the cup, then add the milk after you have removed the leaves (NEVER add milk to the infusion while the leaves are steeping as you will lower the temperature of the water and your leaves won’t release their flavour properly). However, if you pour milk into your tea last, science has shown that the fat from the milk can become caramelised, leaving tiny fat globules on the surface of the tea, affecting its flavour. (5)

Tea is a personal experience. My advice is not to worry about being influenced what you feel you ‘should’ do. Do what makes you feel good.

“There is simply nothing comparable to the feelings and sensations when one sips tea.” (6)

This is true whether you add milk or not.

~ Anna

Notes and citations:
(1) Yes, I also want to shout at my younger self to buy better wine!
(2) Pettigrew, Jane. Richardson, B. (2005). 'Tea Classified. A Tea Lover's Companion.' National Trust Books, U.K.. Print.
(3) Ryan L, Petit S. Addition of whole, semiskimmed, and skimmed bovine milk reduces the total antioxidant capacity of black tea. Nutr Res. 2010 Jan;30(1):14-20. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2009.11.005. PMID: 20116655. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20116655/
(4) Lorenz M, Jochmann N, von Krosigk A, Martus P, Baumann G, Stangl K, Stangl V. Addition of milk prevents vascular protective effects of tea. Eur Heart J. 2007 Jan;28(2):219-23. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehl442. Epub 2007 Jan 9. PMID: 17213230.
(5) Pettigrew, Jane. Richardson, B. (2005). 'Tea Classified. A Tea Lover's Companion.' National Trust Books, U.K.. Print. Page 87.
(6) Keating, Brian R. Long, Kim. (2015). How to Make Tea; The Science behind the Leaf. Lewes. Print. Page 46.


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1 comment

Jun 19, 2024 • Posted by CLARE LOUISE HAMEL

I love everything about tea – beautiful cups to drink it from, fat round joyful teapots to brew it in – and I loved reading Anna’s article above. I drink loose leaf Earl Grey tea and read a long time ago, if you drink it without milk, it may cause cancer of the throat. So I started adding milk to my cup and have done so ever since.
Yesterday a beautiful box of teas arrived from Anna and I am going to try the black ones without milk and see how I like it. Whatever I decide, it’s all about just enjoying the brew, experimenting, smelling and having your own special rituals. Thank you Anna – how wonderful to have some one like you in New Zealand!

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