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Why do British put milk in first?

If you’ve ever had a cup of tea with a British friend or colleague, you may have noticed something a little peculiar: they often add milk to the cup before pouring in the hot water. This practice has left many non-British tea drinkers perplexed and curious about the reasoning behind it. While there is no definitive answer, there are a few theories worth exploring to understand why the British put milk in first.

Historical Background of Adding Milk First

Have you ever wondered why the British always put milk in their tea first? This is one of the many peculiarities of the English tea-drinking culture and a debate that has been going on for a long time. Let’s delve deeper into the history behind this practice.

Milk in Tea – An Old Practice

The concept of adding milk to tea dates back to the early 17th century when tea first arrived in Britain. Initially, the British drank tea without milk, but it soon became fashionable to add it. However, this was not an easy task. The heat of freshly brewed tea used to crack fine china cups, so milk was added to cool the tea and prevent such mishaps.

adding milk in tea

The Social Divide

Milk was not readily available to the working-class in England, so adding it to their tea was a luxury, reserved only for the upper class. Hence, adding milk to tea served as a symbol of one’s status, wealth, and refinement. The upper-class would add a little milk to their tea first, followed by a stream of conveniently brewed tea. In contrast, the lower-class added milk last and scalded their mouths in the process.

adding milk in middle of tea

Tea in Public Places

During the 19th century, tea became a popular drink in public places, such as tea shops and cafes. At that time, there was no standard practice of adding milk to tea, so the customer was given the choice of when to add the milk. Adding milk first, – before pouring the tea, allowed the customer to estimate the amount of milk needed, ensuring that it was ‘just the right colour’. This practice is still common in cafes across the UK.

British teashops

Temperature Control

Another reason for adding milk first is that milk, being colder than tea, helps in controlling the temperature of the beverage. The milk itself can act as a sort of thermometer, ensuring that the water is never too hot, which can scorch the tea leaves and cause a burnt flavor.

adding milk in tea

Brewing Process

In many parts of the UK, particularly Scotland, tea is brewed in a pot, and the milk is added to the cup first, followed by tea. This is an entirely different process than adding milk before water. Scottish people argue that adding milk to tea first is more logical because it allows for a better brew. Brewing in water that is too hot will scorch the tea, releasing bitter tannins that spoil the flavor. When milk is added first, the hot liquid is tempered, providing a milder infusion that enhances the tea’s delicate qualities.

Scottish milk tea

Cultural Perception

In conclusion, adding milk to tea first is a matter of personal preference and cultural perception. It is a longstanding debate, and people all around the world have their opinions about it. The British are staunchly against changing this practice, and for them, adding milk first is an essential part of their tea-drinking tradition.

British tea traditions

With or Without Milk – It’s All up to You!

Whether you add milk to your tea first or last, having a cup of tea is all about comfort and enjoyment. There are no right or wrong ways to enjoy this timeless beverage. Experiment and discover which way you prefer.

British tea traditions

The Last Word

The history behind adding milk to tea first in the UK is fascinating, and this practice is firmly embedded in their culture. With all the arguments in favor of adding milk first, we can conclude that it was not just about the convenience, temperature control, or social status. It was the result of the intricate blend of many factors that contributed to this practice’s evolution.

British tea traditions

History of Tea Drinking in Britain

Tea drinking has been a long-standing tradition in Britain. Tea came to England in the mid-17th century and by the 18th century, tea became a fashionable drink among the middle and upper classes. Initially, tea was an expensive commodity imported from China that only the wealthy could afford. But with time, it became more accessible and affordable for people from all walks of life.

The Rise of Tea Culture in Britain

With the rise in popularity of tea culture, there were also debates about how to brew the perfect cup of tea. One of the most hotly contested issues was whether to add milk first or last. Over time, the debate has evolved into a cultural practice that is now deeply ingrained in British tea-drinking habits.

The Science of Making Tea

Making the perfect cup of tea involves not only personal preference but also science. The chemistry of tea brewing has a significant impact on the taste and flavor profile of the tea. The brewing temperature, the amount of tea leaves used, the steeping time, and the order of adding milk all affect the final product.

Proponents of Adding Milk First

Those who advocate for putting milk in first argue that it cools the water and helps to prevent cracks in delicate tea cups. This method is particularly useful for bone china cups that are more prone to cracking when exposed to hot liquid. Additionally, adding milk first has been known to lessen the tannin content, resulting in a milder taste.

Opponents of Adding Milk First

On the other hand, those against adding milk first believe that it impacts the taste of the tea. They argue that adding milk first causes the proteins in the milk to denature and create a slightly bitter taste. Moreover, some people find that adding milk first makes it harder to judge the strength of the tea and how much milk is appropriate.

Regional Differences in Tea Drinking Habits

While adding milk first is a generally accepted practice in Britain, regional differences do exist. In the North of England, people have a preference for stronger tea and usually put the milk in last, which allows them to control the strength and flavor of the tea. On the other hand, in the South, people often add milk first, possibly due to the influence of the upper classes who typically did the same.

Social Class and Tea Culture

Tea drinking has long been associated with social class in Britain. The working-class valued a strong brew, while the upper classes were more concerned with refined taste and manners. Adding milk first or last was just one more way for the upper classes to display their superiority and refinement.

The Role of Tea in British Society Today

Tea remains an integral part of British society, with people consuming over 100 million cups of tea every day. While tea drinking is no longer an indicator of social class, the debate of adding milk first or last continues to be a topic of discussion and a reflection of the complexities of British culture.

The Evolution of Tea Making Techniques

Today, there are many variations in tea-making techniques, including the types of teas used, brewing methods, and the order of adding milk. With the advent of new technologies and brewing equipment, it is now possible to make the perfect cup of tea at home. The debate over whether to add milk first or last will continue to be a matter of personal preference, but we can all agree that a good cup of tea is an essential part of British culture.


In conclusion, the practice of adding milk to tea has been a long-standing tradition in British culture. Whether to put the milk first or last is a highly debated topic, with both sides having valid points. The history of tea in Britain, different regional preferences, social class, and the evolution of tea-making techniques have all played a role in shaping the cultural practice we know today. Regardless of the order of milk, tea remains an essential part of British society and will continue to be for many years to come.

Historical Origins

A popular theory for why the British put milk in first when making tea is due to its historical origins. Tea became popular in Britain in the 17th century, and at that time, tea sets and cups were made from delicate porcelain. Pouring boiling water into these delicate cups sometimes caused them to break. Therefore, placing milk first acted as a buffer, helping to cool the boiling water slightly and prevent the cups from breaking.

Another historical explanation is that milk was added first so that servants could pour the tea without accidentally spilling the milk. In wealthy households, it was common for servants to take the tea from the kitchen to the drawing-room where it was served. Pouring the milk first into the cups would prevent any spillage while the servants carried the tea up the stairs to the drawing-room.

The Debate Continues

The question of why the British put milk in first when making tea is still up for debate. Some tea experts and connoisseurs argue that adding milk first can actually affect the taste of the tea. They argue that by adding milk first, the tea’s delicate flavor is lost.

However, there are others who believe that adding milk first does not make much of a difference. They claim that as long as the tea is brewed correctly, adding milk first does not affect the flavor.

A Regional Preference

While it is often associated with the British, it is important to note that adding milk first when making tea is not a practice that is followed by all British citizens. In fact, it is more of a regional preference. In the northern parts of the UK, it is common to add milk first, while in the southern parts of the UK, it is more common to add milk after the tea has been brewed.

This regional preference could be attributed to the fact that regions in the north had a greater influence from Scotland, where milk was often added first, while the regions in the south had a greater influence from China, where tea was traditionally drunk plain and milk was not added at all.


There is no definitive answer as to why the British put milk in first when making tea. Historical origin and regional preference seem to be the most common explanations. However, it is important to note that one’s personal preference should always take priority over tradition. Ultimately, the debate boils down to this: adding milk first is just another way to enjoy tea in one’s preferred taste.

Suggested Readings
Milk in first? The tea mystery that has long puzzled scientists
Why do the British put milk in tea?
Why the British get so upset over tea

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british putting milk in tea
british putting milk in tea
british putting milk in tea
british putting milk in tea

Learn more about the history behind this British custom and why it’s not just about etiquette with TeaTime Magazine’s article on the history of adding milk to tea.

Sip it like a Brit

Now you know why the British put milk in first and potentially, you’re even thinking of trying it yourself. So sit back, grab your favourite blend, and sip it like a Brit! I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Remember to drop by again for more fun facts and cultural tidbits. Thanks for stopping by!

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