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You've Been Making Tea the Wrong Way for 30 Years

In 1980, the British Standards Institute published an exhaustive manual for making a typical cup of tea. Over three decades later, Brits are still losing their minds over the idea of putting the milk in first.
Photo via Flickr user carowallis1

The milk should go in first. That's the final word on the subject of tea preparation, according to a group of highly serious pedants at the British Standards Institute.

Now, this isn't exactly news by any definition of the term. After all, the BSI published its ten-page guide entitled "Preparation for a liquor of tea for use in sensory tests" all the way back in 1980, and it hasn't deviated from those rules since. ("Liquor" here means the infused tea itself, not a slug of Scotch discreetly poured beneath your desk.)


For whatever reason, though, the Telegraph decided to remind everyone this week that people were paid actual money to outline one of the most reflexive procedures undertaken by millions every single day. (The report was even awarded an IgNobel Prize, which celebrates ludicrous yet useful advancements in the world of research, 19 years after it was released.) And the British press has predictably lost its fool mind over the very notion that it's been preparing its cups incorrectly.

Long story short, Brits take their tea as seriously as a heart attack.

Most concerning for them, however, is where the milk fits into the equation. As with coffee drinkers across the Atlantic, people in the UK seem to overwhelmingly prefer adding milk to hot tea, and not the other way around.

This is wrong, says the BSI. Very, very wrong.

While milk can, in some extreme cases, be added afterward, "experience has shown that the best results are obtained when the temperature of the liquor is in the range 65 to 80°C [149 to 176ºF] when the milk is added," the BSI claims.

George Orwell would've disagreed. Indeed, writing in the Evening Standard in 1946, the 1984 author explains it all: "[One] should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. 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 the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round."


The BSI takes it a step further, mandating the use of a white porcelain or glazed earthenware pot "with its edge partly serrated … and provided with a lid, the skirt of which fits loosely inside the pot." (You'd better believe the BSI included a diagram, just in case you weren't sure what that looks like.) It also prescribes a ratio of 2 grams of tea per 100 milliliters of liquor, with a variance of only two percent.

But don't think that this is the only body of regulation-obsessed individuals to have written a procedure manual for tea, as The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) released its own guide to tea-making back in 2003. It doesn't deviate all that much from the BSI, with the exception of a few key differences: The BSI says your loose-leaf tea should steep for a full six minutes, while the RSC says you only need three minutes. Crucially, the RSC also stipulates that one must bring the pot to the kettle, and not the other way around. It also recommends pre-warming the pot for a full 30 seconds before adding loose tea and boiling water.

"Drink at between 60-65 degrees Centigrade," the RSC notes, "to avoid vulgar slurping which results from trying to drink tea at too high a temperature."

The RSC agrees that milk should go into the cup before the tea, but not UHT (ultra-high temperature) pasteurized milk, "which contains denatured proteins and tastes bad." Those milk proteins can also denature if the milk is added to hot tea.

It's like that acid-to-water mnemonic you learned in high school chemistry before embarking on a career as a Winnebago-bound meth-maker: "Milk before tea is better than being locked in a dog crate with an Africanized honeybee."

We're still working on that one.