Which Goes First In Your Cup, Milk Or Tea?

  • 14 March 2017

In the history of great debates, there is one that has raged for decades (perhaps centuries) with both sides insisting that they’re correct. You may have a great dispute in mind but it’s actually one you may not have thought of. It’s ‘add milk before tea, or add tea before milk’! Ask anyone that adds milk to their tea, and they will have a firm answer, and believe that their way is the best way.

If you drink your tea with milk, what do you prefer? Do you add the milk first and then pour the tea? Or do you pour in your tea first and add a billowy cloud of milk to your cup?

If you add your milk first, you’re considered a ‘miffy’ (the ‘M’ stands for milk). Tea first, is a ‘tiffy’. As an American tea drinker, these terms were relatively new to me. But if you are British, you know how touchy the subject can be. To understand the debate, I decided to try and find out when the custom of adding milk to tea evolved in the first place.

Butter has been added to Tibetan tea for centuries, but this debate seems to have originated in Europe around the time when tea started becoming popular in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The teas being imported from China at the time had a long voyage, and teas were often stale and bitter to taste. It’s speculated that milk was first added to tame the bitterness, which makes sense.

This issue seems to be a popular British debate topic, but research shows that the introduction of milk into European tea drinking may actually have a French origin. From Victor Mair and Erling Hoh’s book True History of Tea, a French aristocrat is credited with introducing milk, “While milk tea was drunk by the Manchu officials that the Europeans would have encountered, and the Dutchman Johann Nieuhoff had been offered tea with milk at a banquet in Canton in 1655, the honor of introducing the custom to Europe is traditionally ascribed to Madame de la Sabliere, who in 1680 served tea with milk at her famous Paris salon.”

After this introduction, it seems that adding milk to tea became quite fashionable.

I was surprised to see that in 1946 the famous novelist George Orwell wrote an essay entitled A Nice Cup of Tea which tackles this great debate!

Clearly this issue was important enough to make it into one of his essays. He admits “Tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country and causes violent disputes over how it should be made…” indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. Of course, Mr. Orwell has his own thoughts on the right way to drink tea.

He wrote, “The Milk First school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments…but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting tea in first and then stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is liable to put in too much milk the other way round.” Looks like Mr. Orwell was a tiffy! I love that he wrote an entire essay on the topic of tea.

Clearly he had good taste in beverages along with his incredible talent for writing.

In doing a bit more research on the miffy and tiffy debate, I found many other strong opinions on the topic and they often seem to contradict.

Many in Britain believe this to be a social class issue and say that the upper class are in the tiffy camp, pouring tea in first then the milk. This reasoning is because the fine china cups will not stain, unlike cheaper, lower quality cups that easily stain. Could it really be the quality of the cup? Possibly, as I’ve also read that when expensive hard paste porcelain was invented, only the upper class could afford it. This stronger porcelain could also withstand the heat of the tea, while cheaper porcelain would break, meaning you’d need to pour the milk in first. So, it was a clear sign of wealth to add the tea in first, and show you were not worried about the quality of your china cups. Do you have confidence in your tea cups?

Another class-based reason could have originated with the quality of the tea. Lower-class individuals couldn’t afford high-quality tea and ended up with strong and very bitter brews. Supposedly adding the milk first will leave less room for tea, which saves money on tea and also dilutes the bitter flavor. Adding lots of milk and sugar to a strong brew is called a ‘builder’s tea’, and is still a British style of preparing tea whether you are a miffy or a tiffy.

It’s difficult to know if any of these historical reasons have any true merit, but they are certainly fun to consider. Today strong tea blends are often created with the idea that milk will later be added. The blender will test the brew alone and then add milk to make sure the flavor holds up correctly.

Some of us are tea purists and don’t add anything to the tea at all, even if it’s a strong breakfast blend. I like to taste just the tea, not anything else. But I can also appreciate why adding a little bit of smooth, creamy milk would enhance a sipping experience.

So are you a miffy or a tiffy? Or are you a tea purist? I think the real answer here is tea is all about enjoyment, so no matter when you add your milk, all that matters is that you savor the experience.

Sara Shacket

Blogger, Tea Happiness