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When Do You Add Milk to Tea?

The habit of taking with milk with tea seems to have its origin amongst a segment of the French elite. In 1685, Philippe Sylvestre Dufour devoted a lengthy passage to le Thé au lait ‘tea with milk’, which he recommended as an antidote against coughs and digestive disorders.

The Chinese black teas imported into colonial Boston surely would have tasted better with milk. The milk would have smoothed out the rough edges of the teas that were already stale by the time they made their years-long journey from Canton via London.

Much of the tea produced today in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya is manufactured to be drunk with the addition of milk. Milk complements a malty Assam or full-bodied Sri Lankan black tea, but cream can sometimes mask the taste of quality black teas. It’s too heavy.

That settled, let’s launch right into a hotly debated issue in tea etiquette: Are you a M.I.F. (milk in first) or are you a M.I.L. (milk in last) tea drinker?

The answer is:

In a formal setting, milk is poured after the tea. You may have heard or read that milk precedes the tea into the cup but this is not the case. You do not put milk in before tea because then you cannot judge the strength of the tea by its color and aroma. A dark Assam might taster better with more milk than a lighter Darjeeling tea.

Where did this old milk-first tale come from? Samuel Twining has theorized that milk first prevented early china from cracking in reaction to boiling water. That theory appears rather shaky today since boiling water is not poured directly into the cup.

By now, it goes without saying that milk should not be added to white, green, or oolong teas.

Johnson at tea
Dr Samuel Johnson sits for tea in London.

I’m sure Carson the butler would advise the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey to put milk in second. After all, the butler in the popular BBC television program Upstairs, Downstairs kindly gave the following advice to the household servants who were arguing about the virtues of milk before or after the tea is poured:

Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.

Moyra Bremner, author of Enquire Within Upon Modern Etiquette and Successful Behaviour, says,

Milk, strictly speaking, goes in after the tea.

According to the English writer Evelyn Waugh,

All nannies and many governesses…put the milk in first.

And, by the way, Queen Elizabeth II adds the milk last.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author of over a dozen books on the subject of tea. Mr. Richardson has designed custom tea blends for The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum The Peabody Essex Museum, The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

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