What scientific debate today is more discussed than that of how to make tea? As the issue currently stands (a hotly-contested and bitter stalemate), the field is divided into two main camps: the Tea-Firsts and the Milk-Firsts. Not since Swift’s Endian Dilemma over how to crack an egg has such fierce culinary fervor been whipped up without even so much as a whisk. I hope here to present a thorough documentation and comparison of several of the extant expert opinions and published work on the subject, with a critical eye toward empiricism, chemistry, and humor.
Ignoring those who leave tea un-milked or drink a tea incompatible with milk or unthinkably drink something other than tea, most will either introduce milk, cream, half-and-half, or correction fluid into their cup, mug, thermos, or volute krater before tea, or after (one small subculture subscribes to simultaneously introducing the two but is decried as heretic by both major schools of thought). The British are clearly the experts, and there is no dearth of literature from their corner. George Orwell establishes himself staunchly on the Tea-First side in “A Nice Cup of Tea,” proclaiming, “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 around.”
Douglas Adams, however, is an unashamed Milk-First, outlining his position in “Tea” from The Salmon of Doubt: “It’s probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea, you will scald the milk.” A footnote says, “This is socially incorrect. The socially correct way of pouring tea is to put the milk in after the tea.” This adds the benefit of etiquette to the Tea-Firsts.
But writers, citizenship notwithstanding, are not necessarily experts; the problem is a scientific one. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), whose expertise in the field of making things make sense evidently does not extend to acronyms, in 1980 described precisely and finally a standardized method for brewing tea. The standard, winner of the 1999 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature, also advocates Milk-First brewing. While it is important to note that ISO standards are not so much suggested ways to make good tea, but rather detailed descriptions for making consistent tea, ISO 3103:1980 logically represents an ideal modus operandi in the eyes of the largest standards organization in the world.