An Analysis of the Milkian Problem of Modern Teaology

By: Daniel W. Galef, TGFOP

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.

The Royal Society of Chemistry, in their 2003 paper, “How to Make a Perfect Cup of Tea” (cruelly ousting Orwell’s “A Nice Cup of Tea” in terms of title and demolishing Adams’s “Tea”), is decidedly Galactoprimian: “Pour milk into the cup FIRST, followed by the tea.” Additionally, for the first time, the motivation for the Milk-First position is explained technically: “Milk should be added before the tea, because denaturation (degradation) of milk proteins is liable to occur if milk encounters temperatures above 75̊C. If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk. Once full mixing has occurred the temperature should be below 75̊C.”

Evidence seems to favour the Milk-Firsts, but the scant literature necessitates further research. One facet not discussed is the chemistry of dilution, and anyone denying the issue is a diluting problem is very diluted, indeed. When diluting an acid, the dilutant is never poured second, lest the exothermic dissolving reaction cause the solution to become violently agitated or cause the chemist to. Rather, the acid is always introduced to the neutral solvent. While the pH of tea varies with variety, it is certainly acidic, with an average 4.9 to an occasional tooth-dissolving 2.87. Milk is 7.0, perfectly neutral. Thus, a chemist might recommend adding tea to milk, unless, of course, the chemical dilution reaction were the desired result.

Adams maintains: “There is a very simple principle to the making of tea, and it is this — to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be boilING (Not boilED) when it hits the tea leaves. If it’s merely hot, then the tea will be insipid.” Orwell insists “The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact.” The ISO demand “freshly boiling water,” and the RSC states: “Tea infusion needs to be performed at as high a temperature as is possible.” Perhaps the thermal energy from the addition of milk would be welcome, heat being one of the sole factors in tea quality pivoting on preparation. It seems negligible, but no potential effect is too small to consider; articles longer and more professional than this have been devoted to more minuscule changes in tea temperature (comprising the relatively new field of thermoteaology, as compared to chemoteaology, socioteaology, and bioteaology).

The evidence thus presented, discussed, and reviewed, the conclusion seems clear: don’t pay any attention to an article written entirely on when to pour milk and do whatever you want. In the field, proponents of Tea-First preparation seem to vastly outnumber the Milk-Firsts. Chemical arguments aside, Orwell’s point regarding proportions is never addressed or refuted by others, and, indeed, seems to have much more of a direct and noticeable effect on the taste of the tea than any “scalding” or “denaturation.” In the absence of more professional or comprehensive volumes on the subject, I retire the case, put on the kettle for a nice cuppa, and recommend for my readers to do the same.

 Of course, as mentioned, the Milkian Debate is hardly the only issue in modern teaological theory. Regarding as simple a matter as brewing time, the RSC gives a definite “three minutes,” the ISO a firm and authoritative “six minutes,” and Adams a fuzzy “two or three minutes,” while Orwell remains strangely mum on the subject. Duke it out, fellas.



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