Milk in Tea …

How do you take your tea?  With milk … or without?  This isn’t the debate about whether milk goes in first or last.  That is a topic for a different day.  This discussion is about why are we adding milk to tea at all!  Many people would never think of having a cuppa tea without adding milk. For me, it can vary.  If its a cold, rainy day and I need a hearty Assam, then, definitely ‘yes’.  Otherwise, I’ll take my tea — green, black, or white — as is.  Steeped perfectly with no milk or sweetener.  There are many theories as to the origin of adding milk to tea, but would you like to know the REAL story?

Let’s start at the beginning …. as we all know, tea originated in China about 5,000 years ago.  And contrary to many beliefs, adding milk to tea actually began in China.  Over the centuries, tea evolved in its processing and in its enjoyment.  Although written documents do not go back quite that far, we do know that in the beginning tea leaves were pulverized into a paste and used primarily for medicinal purposes.  By the 8th century, however, tea became much more ceremonial and reserved only for nobility.  The Imperial Court started enjoying its tea pulverized and prepared by boiling in hot water.

By the 12th century, the preparation had changed again as tea continued to be pounded into a powder, but now it was frothed up in hot water before serving.  A method that found its way to Japan and is still practiced today.  As Japan was embracing this style of tea preparation and enjoyment, the Chinese Imperial Court once again changed the way they prepared tea.  Now preparation was to infuse the whole tea leaves in water, just as we make tea today.  The pressed powder tea vanished entirely from Chinese tea culture (not from Japan).  But when did milk come into play?

Across northern China, along the Mongolian and Siberian borders, lie the Wuyi Mountains, where it is said some of the best teas originated.  The tradition of adding dairy to tea was actually invented by people who live in this stark, frigid landscape.

During ancient times, as a means of preservation, tea was compressed into blocks or bricks.  The leaves, either whole or pulverized, would have been pressed into molds to shape them, and then left to dry until all the moisture was evaporated.  The bricks themselves were very primitive and could take on many different sizes and shapes … over the years some of the molds became quite decorative and elaborate.  These tea bricks were also traded as a form of currency (but we’ll leave that discussion for another day).


The Mongols from the north had no use for the Chinese and from the days of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, began conquering this vast region.  As the Vikings did when conquering Great Britain, the Mongols traveled with their nomadic families, subsisting entirely on the meat and the milk from their herds.  These new rulers of the land drank this coarse dark brew made from the tea bricks.  They enriched the brew by adding the fermented milk from their mares and yaks.

Enjoying yak milk tea and tea balls in a yurt in Mongolia.

To prepare the tea, pieces of the bricks were broken off, boiled with water or milk, and then mixed with butter and a little salt, making it a healthful, filling beverage.  This style of tea preparation with its high fat content, was needed for people who faced the brutal climate of this region.  Many times the cooked tea leaves would then be formed into balls and eaten as food.  Both of these styles of preparation continue today.

By the 17th century when the Manchu tribesmen began moving down from the north to retake their country, tea growers were already selling teas … to the Dutch.  Once again, contrary to popular beliefs, it was the Dutch who began buying tea and introduced it to Europe … not the English.  Although Portuguese, Italian and Spanish explorers tasted tea and wrote about it, it was the Dutch who began the tea trade.  The Dutch East India Company was formed in 1605 and began trading with China, bringing the tea leaves to Amsterdam.  In 1655, when the Dutch ambassador travelled with the Company to the port city of Canton, he documented that milk was “given with his tea”.  This is the first evidence of Europeans adding milk to tea.

Tea was known in France by 1636, but didn’t enjoy a big following.  In Russia, tea was given as a gift to Czar Michael in 1618, but he rejected it.  Tea also appeared in Germany around this time, but also wasn’t widely accepted.  But, when tea first appeared in England thanks to Portuguese Princess Catherine de Braganza, aristocrats took to it immediately.   It was through coffeehouses in England in the 1650s where tea first appeared publicly.  From there it was introduced to the British colonies in America.
When tea was introduced to Britain in the middle of the 17th century, it was green tea from China … gunpowder green, served without milk.  But, by the 1720s, although very expensive, black teas from China had taken over in popularity and were outselling green teas.   And it was not the best quality, so adding milk to the cup just made sense.  And that’s when British tea drinkers began adding milk and sugar for enjoyment.

As Sam Twinings, director of R. Twinings and Company, says:  “There is no doubt tea is, on the whole, improved by milk.  It smooths the taste, and is often referred to as ‘creaming’, giving a more pleasant, gentler, softer result.  Teas like Gunpowder, Green and Jasmine, however, are not good with milk.  Assam type teas cannot be drunk without it.”  I couldn’t agree more!

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References:  Siam Teas, Teapedia, Wikipedia, Harvard Business School, That’s Mandarin, Atlas Obscura, Teasenz
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