Milk in First, or Last Part 2: a Tempest in a Teapot

Poster created by the amazing Geof Banyard (islandofdoctorgeof.co.uk) for a
2016 mock ‘Tea Referendum’

This is Part 2 of a very long article – see here for part 1.

Clearly the majority of modern-day advocates (including all those YouTube commenters that I mentioned last time) aren’t aspiring members of the upper-middle or upper classes or avid followers of etiquette, so why does this schism among tea-drinkers still persist? No doubt the influence of snobs like Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh et al persists, but for most it seems to boil down (ha) to personal preference. This has not calmed the debate any however. Both sides, now mostly comprised of middle class folk such as myself, now argue with equal certainty that their way is the only right way. Is Milk In First (MIF)/Milk In Last (MIL) really now a ‘senseless meme’ (as Professor Markman Ellis believes; see Part 1) – akin to the ‘big-endians’ and ‘little-endians’ of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’? Is there some objective truth to the two positions that underpins all this passion and why the debate has surpassed class differences? Is there a way to reconcile or at least explain it so that we can stop this senseless quibbling? Well, no. We’re British. Quibbling and looking down on each other are two of our chief national pastimes. However, another of those pastimes is stubbornness, so let’s try anyway…

Today’s MILers protest that their method is necessary in order to be able to judge the strength of the tea by its colour. Yet clearly opinions on this differ and, as I showed in the video, sufficiently strong blends – and any amount of experience in making tea – render this moot. If you do ‘under milk’, you can add more to taste (although as I also noted, you might argue that this makes MIL the more expedient method). As we’ve seen with George Orwell vs the Tea & Coffee Trade, the colour/strength argument is highly subjective. Can science help us in terms of which way around is objectively better? Perhaps, although there are no rigorous scientific studies. In the early 2000s the Royal Society of Chemistry and Loughborough University both came out in favour of MIF. The RSC press release gives the actual science:

“Pour milk into the cup FIRST, followed by the tea, aiming to achieve a colour that is rich and attractive…Add fresh chilled milk, not UHT milk which contains denatured proteins and tastes bad. Milk should be added before the tea, because denaturation (degradation) of milk proteins is liable to occur if milk encounters temperatures above 75°C. If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk.

It also transpires that an actual international standard (ISO 3103:1980, preceded by several British Standards going back to 1975) was agreed for tea-making way back in 1980, and this too dictated that tea should be added to milk “…in order to avoid scalding the milk”. This would obviously only happen if the tea is particularly hot, and indeed the standard includes a ‘milk last’ protocol in which the tea is kept below 80 degrees celsius. Perhaps those favouring MIL simply like their tea cooler and so don’t run into the scalding problem? This might explain why I do prefer the taste of the same tea, with the same milk, made MIF from a pot, rather than MIL with a teabag in a cup… I like my tea super hot. So, the two methods can indeed taste different; a fact proven by a famous statistical experiment (famous among statisticians; a commenter had to point this out for me) resulted in a lady being able to tell whether a cup of tea had been made MIF or MIL eight times out of eight.

“Already, quite soon after he had come to Rothamstead, his presence had transformed one commonplace tea time to an historic event. It happened one afternoon when he drew a cup of tea from the urn and offered it to the lady beside him, Dr. B. Muriel Bristol, an algologist. She declined it, stating that she preferred a cup into which the milk had been poured first. “Nonsense,” returned Fisher, smiling, “Surely it makes no difference.” But she maintained, with emphasis, that of course it did. From just behind, a voice suggested, “Let’s test her.” It was William Roach who was not long afterward to marry Miss Bristol. Immediately, they embarked on the preliminaries of the experiment, Roach assisting with the cups and exulting that Miss Bristol divined correctly more than enough of those cups into which tea had been poured first to prove her case.

-Fisher-Box, 1978, p. 134.

This of course doesn’t help with which is objectively better, but does suggest that one side may be ‘right’. However, as well as temperature, the strength of the brew may also make a difference here, one that might explain why this debate rumbles on with no clear victor. A commenter on a Guardian article explains the chemistry of a cup of tea;

“IN THE teacup, two chemical reactions take place which alter the protein of the milk: denaturing and tanning. The first, the change that takes place in milk when it is heated, depends only on temperature. ‘Milk-first’ gradually brings the contents of the cup up from fridge-cool. ‘Milk-last’ rapidly heats the first drop of milk almost to the temperature of the teapot, denaturing it to a greater degree and so developing more ‘boiled milk’ flavour. The second reaction is analogous to the tanning of leather. Just as the protein of untanned hide is combined with tannin to form chemically tough collagen/tannin complexes, so in the teacup, the milk’s protein turns into tannin/casein complexes. But there is a difference: in leather every reactive point on the protein molecule is taken up by a tannin molecule, but this need not be so in tea. Unless the brew is strong enough to tan all the casein completely, ‘milk-first’ will react differently from ‘milk-last’ in the way it distributes the tannin through the casein. In ‘milk-first’, all the casein tans uniformly; in ‘milk-last’ the first molecules of casein entering the cup tan more thoroughly than the last ones. If the proportions of tannin to casein are near to chemical equality, ‘which-first’ may determine whether some of the casein escapes tanning entirely. There is no reason why this difference should not alter the taste.

-Dan Lowy, Sutton, Surrey (The Guardian, Notes & Queries, 2011).

Both the scalding and the denaturation/tanning explanations are referenced in the popular science book ‘Riddles in Your Teacup’ (p. 90), the authors having consulted physicists (who favour a temperature explanation) and chemists (who of course take a chemistry-based view) on this question. I also found this interesting explanation, from an 1870 edition of the Boston Journal of Chemistry, of tannins in tea and how milk reacts with them to change the taste of the tea. This supports the idea, as does the tea-tasting lady’s ability to tell the difference, that MIF and MIL can result in a different taste. Needless to say, people have different palates and preferences and it’s likely that some prefer their tannins left unchecked (black tea), fully suppressed (milk in first), or partly mitigated (milk in last). However, if your tea is strong enough, the difference in taste will be small or even non-existent, as the tannins will shine through regardless and you’ll just get the additional flavour of the milk (perhaps tasting slightly boiled?). My preferred blend (Betty’s Tea Room blend) absolutely does retain this astringent taste regardless of which method I use or even how hot the water is (even if I do prefer it hot and MIF!).

So, the available scientific advice does favour MIF, for what it’s worth, which interestingly bears out those early reports of upper class tea aficionados and later ‘below stairs’ types who both preferred it this way. However, the difference isn’t huge and depends what temperature the tea is when you hit it with the milk, how strong the brew is, and what blend you use. It’s a bit like unevenly steamed milk in a latte or cappuccino; it’s fine, but it’s nicer when it has that smooth, foamed texture and hasn’t been scalded by the wand. The bottom line, which is what I was trying to say in my YouTube response, is that it’s basically just fashion/habit and doesn’t much matter either way (despite the amount I’ve said and written about it!) – to which I can now add the taste preference and chemical change aspects. If you pour your tea at a lower temperature, the milk won’t get so denatured/scalded, and even this small difference won’t occur. Even if you pour it hot, you might not mind or notice the difference in taste. As for the historical explanation of cracking cups, it’s probably bollocks, albeit rooted in the fact of substandard British teaware. As readers of this blog will know by now, these neat origin stories generally do turn out to be made up after the fact, and the real history is more nuanced. This story is no different.

To recap; when tea was introduced in the 17th century most people drank it black. By the early 19th century milk became widely used as an option that you added to the poured tea, like sugar. Later that century, some found that they preferred putting the milk in first and were thought particular for doing so (marking the start of the Great Tea Schism). Aside from being a minority individual preference, most upper class hostesses continued to serve MIL (as Hartley recommended) because when hosting numbers of fussy guests, serving the tea first and offering milk, sugar and lemon to add to their own taste was simply more practical and efficient. Guests cannot object to their tea if they are responsible for putting it together, and this way, everyone gets served at the same time. Rather than outline this practical justification, the 1920s snobs chose to frame the debate in terms of class, setting in stone MIL as the only ‘proper’ way. This, probably combined with a residual idea that black tea was the default and milk was something that you added, and also doubtless definitely as a result of the increasing dominance of tea-making using a teabag and mug/cup (where MIL really is the only acceptable method) left a lot of non-upper class people with the idea that MIL was objectively correct. Finally, as the class system broke down, milk first or last became the (mostly) good-natured debate that it is today.

All of this baggage (especially, in my view, the outdated class snobbery aspect) should be irrelevant to how we take our tea today, and should have been even back then. As far back as 1927, J.B. Priestley used his Saturday Review column to mock the snobs who criticised “…those who pour the milk in first…”. The Duke of Bedford’s ‘Book of Snobs’ (1965, p. 42) lamented the ongoing snobbery over ‘milk in first’ as “…stigmatizing millions to hopelessly inferior status…”. Today, upper class views on what is correct or incorrect are roundly ignored by the majority, and most arguing in favour of MIL would not claim that you should do it because the upper class said that you should, and probably don’t even realise that this is where it came from. Even high-end tea-peddlers Fortnum & Mason note that you should “…pour your tea as you please”. Each person’s view on this is a product of family custom and upbringing, social class, and individual preference; a potent mixture that leads to some strong opinions! Alternatively, like me, you drink your tea sufficiently strong that it barely matters (note I said ‘barely’ – I remain a heretical MIF for life). What does matter, of course, in tea as in all things, is knowing what you like and how to achieve it, as this final quote underlines:

…no rules will insure good tea-making. Poeta nascitur non fit,* and it may be said similarly, you are born a tea-maker, but you cannot become one.

-Samuel Kneeland, About Making Tea (1870). *A Latin expression meaning that poets are born and not made.

References (for both Parts):

Bedford, John Robert Russell, George Mikes & Nicholas Bentley. 1965. The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs. London: P. Owen.

Bennett, Arnold. 1912. Helen With the High Hand. London: Chapman and Hall.

Betjeman, John. 1956. ‘How to Get on in Society’ in Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (Nancy Mitford, ed.). London: Hamish Hamilton.

Boston Journal of Chemistry. 1870. ‘Familiar Science – Leather in the Tea-Cup’. Vol. V, No. 3.

Ferguson, Jonathan. 2020. ‘You’re Doing It Wrong: Tea and Milk with Jonathan Ferguson’. Forgotten Weapons. YouTube video. 15 April 2020. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VCRFVMpSc8&gt;.

Ferguson, Jonathan & McCollum, Ian. 2020. ‘Jonathan Reacts to the First Day Kickstarter for his Book’. Forgotten Weapons. YouTube video. 13 April 2020. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XO4VgkC_JE&gt;.

Fisher-Box, Joan. 1978. R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist. New York, NY: Wiley.

Fortnum & Mason. ‘How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea.’ The Journal | #Fortnums. <https://www.fortnumandmason.com/fortnums/the-perfect-cup-of-tea&gt;.

Ghose, Partha & Dipankar Home. 1994. Riddles in your Teacup. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Guanghua (光華). 1995. Press Room of the Information Bureau of the Executive Yuan of the Republic of China. Vol. 20, Nos. 7–12.

Hartley, Florence. 1860. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Handbook. Boston, MA: Cottrell.

Johnson, Dorothea. 2002. Tea & Etiquette. Washington, D.C.: Capital.

Kneeland, Markman. 2017. ‘“Milk in First”: a miffy question’. Queen Mary University of London History of Tea Project. 11 May. <https://qmhistoryoftea.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/milk-in-first-a-miffy-question/&gt;.

Kneeland, Samuel. 1870. ‘About Making Tea’. Good Health. Vol. 1, No. 12.

Lowy, Dan. 2011. ‘Notes and Queries’. The Guardian. Digital edition:  <https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,,-1400,00.html>.

Manley, Jeffrey. 2016. ‘Milk in First.’ The Evelyn Waugh Society. 17 November 2016. <https://evelynwaughsociety.org/2016/milk-in-first/&gt;.

Orwell, George. 1946. ‘A Nice Cup of Tea.’ London Evening Standard. Available at <https://orwell.ru/library/articles/tea/english/e_tea&gt;

Rice, Elizabeth Emma. 1884. Domestic Economy. London: Blackie & Son.

Royal Society of Chemistry. 2003. ‘How to Make a Perfect Cup of Tea.’ Press Release. <https://web.archive.org/web/20140811033029/http:/www.rsc.org/pdf/pressoffice/2003/tea.pdf&gt;.

Waugh, Evelyn. 1956. ‘An Open Letter to the Honble Mrs Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) On a Very Serious Subject’ in Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (Nancy Mitford, ed.). London: Hamish Hamilton.

Smith, Matthew. ‘Should milk go in a cup of tea first or last?’ YouGov. 30 July 2018. <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/food/articles-reports/2018/07/30/should-milk-go-cup-tea-first-or-last/&gt;


2 thoughts on “Milk in First, or Last Part 2: a Tempest in a Teapot

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s