Tea has been consumed with milk and sugar for centuries, so why did we get in the habit of doing this? In trying to find and answer to this question, I turned to the British as they are well known for adding milk and sugar to tea.
Economics of Tea with MilkTea was extremely expensive in Britain when it was first introduced to the public in the mid-1600’s and remained that way for more than a century. In 1785 the duty on tea was slashed by the government because local tea merchants saw profits drop as people purchased tea on the black market. From its first days of import, the British government had a very high tax on tea that made it too expensive for most of the country. At first the tax was levied on the beverage itself, the coffee house would make it in the morning, pay the tax collector and then sell it throughout the day. So the customer buying the tea in the afternoon was getting a beverage that was brewed that morning and then reheated. Tea oxidizes once brewed, so that afternoon cup was dark and bitter. Thus began the use of sugar in the tea.
Loose leaf tea was also available to purchase at the time, but again, was taxed heavily so the buyers were only the wealthy. Wealthy women enjoyed tea at home, as it was not considered appropriate for a woman to spend time in the local coffee house. This paved the way for the afternoon tea party and high demand for fine porcelain cups. Porcelain originally came from China, hence why Europeans and Americans refer to porcelain plates and cups as fine china. The first porcelain cups produced in England where made in 1742 after the British got hold of the instructions on how to make porcelain that were written by a French Jesuit Father Francois Zavier d’Entrecolles about the techniques he saw porcelain producers using in China use to craft their wares. Those letters made their way all over Europe and allowed for the creation of porcelain locally, dropping the price of tea cups and fine dishes down to a range that was affordable by more than just the aristocracy. Interestingly, there was a time when it was believed that milk was added to the tea cup to protect it from the boiling tea water because the cups had a nasty habit of cracking if boiling water was poured directly on the cup. (A true porcelain cup would never crack when boiling water was put it in). It is quite possible that a cracking tea cup was a problem at the time. Porcelain made locally was a soft paste porcelain, meaning it was fired at a lower temperature than the Chinese porcelain. If it was made to look as thin as the Chinese porcelain, which would have been what was demanded at the time, boiling water would have cracked the tea cup. It took the British some time before they perfected true porcelain in the late 1700’s, and even then those who perfected it kept it a secret as they had the advantage of matching the Chinese in quality allowing them higher prices in the market. So milk protected the low quality porcelain tea cup.
There is a second story to the introduction of milk to tea. A Dutch merchant by the name of Jean Nieuhoff wrote of his dinner with the Chinese Emperor, as part of a Dutch delegation in 1655, where he was served tea with milk. Given that this would have been the time of the Qing Dynasty, which came from northern China, this is not a surprise. Northern Chinese, at the time, herded goats and where frequent consumers of yogurt, cheese and milk from these animals. Unlike most of the Chinese,who did not consume dairy products, the Emperor would have been raised on goat’s milk. So this presentation, while not commonly seen in China at the time, would have been common place for the Emperor. The writings of Mr. Nieuhoff made their way through the Netherlands, France and England exposing more people to the idea of drinking tea with milk. This would have presented a fabulous idea on how to stretch your tea longer and hide counterfeit tea (a very big problem at the time) – just add milk.
Tea with Milk
So if you are in the habit of drinking milk with your tea, you should probably know that the British have actually studied this and recommend that you will minimize the possibility of curdling the milk and altering the taste of the tea if you add it after pouring the tea into the cup. Now with that said, some of the best tea with milk that I have had is a traditional Masala Chai tea from India, which is made by boiling the tea leaves in a combination of milk and water. So at the end of the day, it is all in personal preference.