What makes the perfect cup of tea?

Ronan Marron 22 November 2016

How to make a cup of tea is of profound importance. I walked into my kitchen recently to find a friend of mine presiding over a mug containing a teabag sodden in milk. I barely need to point out how much of an abomination this is. The sight of the teabag alone, sitting soggy amongst a suspicious white liquid is enough to put one off of their tea entirely. It is also a well-acknowledged fact that making tea like this reduces the temperature at which the tea brews and reduces its potency (and if you like weak tea, you may as well stop reading this and prepare to move somewhere where your preference is acceptable).

Now we move to the thornier subject. When tea has been brewed in a pot – should the milk go in first or not? It won’t affect the brewing process at this stage, so some people really do feel that this is not only acceptable but indeed that it is preferable. I seek to lead the many tea-guzzling students here on the path of light by demonstrating that it is not the way to go.

Many ‘milk-firsters’ (as I shall call these misguided souls) think that they have this argument won. Research from Dr Stapley at the University of Loughborough asserts that the milk-first approach allows a more even heating of the milk which prevents the proteins from denaturing.

Argument over? Not so fast.

This is pseudo-science which takes no account of personal taste. Who is this Dr. Stapley to tell us that we shouldn’t like the flavour of denatured protein? What the milk-firsters seek to do with their radical agenda is de-legitimise personal preference using a pretence of rational science. This is especially problematic when we consider the historical context.

It used to be the case that only the wealthy – those in possession of robust china – could pour in the hot tea first, whilst people with worse china were ridiculed if they poured milk in first to prevent it shattering. Tea made with the milk first bears a legacy of oppression – one that is propagated to this day. I hear that the rumour that the Queen drinks tea with the milk first is simply propaganda to try to deprive the masses of access to high quality tea.

You don’t need to be a sociologist to understand that the advocacy of a milk-first approach is inherently problematic. Yet, not only this, it is flawed. There is a personal perfection in terms of the level of milk which each of us finds to be ideal. I personally only take a drop of milk, others take a significant amount. Yet it is clear that a cup of tea is ruined when the level of milk in the tea diverges from this ideal level.

When you place the milk in first, you are gambling with your tea. One simply does not know what colour the tea will be. The fixed level of the milk means that often in the event that the level is incorrect, there is often nothing that can be done to save the tea.

Now call me a conservative, but some things in life are too precious to be treated so recklessly, and tea is one of them. It might be fine for the wealthy: those with tea to burn and quite possibly servants to repeat the delicate tea-making process. The fact that one might be able to afford to take risks with tea does not render the action acceptable. The promotion of such reckless behaviour verges on the irresponsible.

On another note, tea cools faster when the milk is added later. When the milk is added first the initial drop in temperature gives the milk a shallower cooling curve. Now some see this as an argument for adding milk first. Yet it is clear to see that the tea will be more immediately drinkable if you add the milk later- expediting the tea drinking process. This is essential if, like any good, committed tea drinker, you seek to drink 10+ cups in a day. 

It should be clear here that if you have respect for the sanctity of tea, and believe it is a national institution to be shared by all, there is only one answer: milk after.