Posted in Science & Nature

Milk Tea

In many cultures, it is normal to drink black tea with milk (and sugar, depending on preference). The milk neutralises the acidity of tea and softens the bitterness of tannins, making the tea more palatable and easier on the stomach. This is especially for strong teas such as Assam tea. However, the downside is that there is some evidence that adding milk to tea reduces the beneficial effects from drinking tea, such as relaxing blood vessels and reducing risk of heart disease.

One of the timeless debates is whether to pour the tea or milk first when mixing the two. It is such a bitter topic that there are even recordings in literature of people using the phrase “rather milk in first” as an insult to another person.

George Orwell once published an article on making a perfect cup of tea and he claimed that adding milk to tea allowed you to regulate the amount of milk as you stir. Tea-first advocates also insist that pouring the tea first allows for more brewing time and increases the flavour of the tea.

The reason for milk-first is more scientific. In the early days of tea-drinking, most households did not own high-quality porcelain teacups. Cheap porcelain teacups were too thin to withstand the hot temperature of fresh tea and would crack. Pouring milk first cooled the tea and stopped this from happening. Therefore, pouring tea first was seen as a show of social status as you could afford high-quality teacups. The other main rationale for adding milk first is that the hot tea denatures proteins in milk, which can reduce the flavour and creamy texture of the milk.

To settle this old argument, British chemist Dr Andrew Stapley of the Royal Society of Chemistry undertook experiments to determine which is better from a scientific point of view. He concluded that it is indeed better to pour milk first then add tea. The reasoning is that when you add milk to tea, individual drops contact the tea and increases the surface area exposed to hot tea, denaturing more proteins. Ergo, adding tea to milk reduces this process and provides for a richer, creamier flavour.

At the end of the day, it really is just a cup of tea and you should drink it in whatever way you desire.