The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Milk before or after: that’s the question
- British chemist claims to have found the scientific way to make tea

London, June 25: A British scientist has announced that tea is better made by pouring the milk in first, rather than, as is more usual in India, the hot tea.

But his findings come from a nation where many people still labour under the misapprehension that tea is an English drink which has been gifted, along with civilisation, culture and cricket, to the rest of the less enlightened world.

The findings of Andrew Stapley, a chemical engineer at Loughborough University who styles himself “MA, MEng, PhD, AMIChemE, MIFST”, has been dressed up as scientific mumbo jumbo — those who put the milk in last would say.

His conclusions, announced yesterday by the Royal Society of Chemistry, came after Stapley had spent a couple of months studying the rival merits of India against China and cup versus mug. Part of his research was to mark the centenary of the birth of George Orwell, the author whose flights of fancy were assisted by the consumption of numerous cups of tea.

Stapley seemed unaware of the joys of the “half cup chaa” or drinking the brew from an earthen container which is then smashed on the railway platform or anywhere else for that matter. That joy, though, is disappearing fast even in India where vulgar plastic cups, alas, have taken over from the quaint earthen pot.

His findings have found a resonance in Britain, which considers itself to be the world’s leading tea drinking country.

His tips on producing the perfect cup of tea involves some sensible steps: using soft water, warming the pot before filling and allowing the tea to brew for three minutes. He also recommends loose-leaf Assam tea rather than tea bags, which “slow down the infusion”.

Connoisseurs would turn up their noses at the suggestion of Assam tea but that is another debate. Assam tea — rather than classier Darjeeling — is what would be recommended if such a serious question as how tea should be made is left to scientists, as the Daily Telegraph of London wrote in its editorial today.

“(But) the perfect cup of tea is something for philosophers and poets to argue about,” the paper wrote.

“Let the scientists get on with more trivial matters, like discovering the origins of the universe,” it said in conclusion.

Stapley, however, claimed that science had settled the controversial question of what should go in first: it ought to be the milk. His reasoning is that when the milk is exposed to high temperatures, which it would be if it is poured in second, its proteins tend to degrade — “denature” in his jargon — resulting in a slightly stale taste.

It was not immediately clear if Stapley has ever sipped a cup of tea, Indian style, or even the masala tea, when all the ingredients are boiled together.

Orwell himself, with his Indian connections, would have known the Stapley formula is nonsense. He added the milk in later. Orwell did concede, though, that the making of tea had “long been a subject of violent debate”.

However, Orwell had the clinching argument. By adding the milk in later, he could decide just how much he wanted by stirring the brew and studying the changing colour.

The English have already had a go at teaching Indians how to cook curry. All recipes begin with the instruction: “Toss in a couple of tablespoons of any old curry powder to meat left over from last week, stir in tomato ketchup and hope for the best...”

According to Julia King, head of the Institute of Physics, the water temperature, when making tea, is best kept at 98 degrees Celsius.

Putting the milk in first was a cultural quirk that had nothing to do with taste and was “a habit we have retained from the times when only the rich could afford porcelain”, she said.

“Those of us with cheap china had to put the milk in first to cool the tea slightly to prevent our cups cracking,” was her more plausible explanation.

Staff at the India Tea Board or the Indian high commission were not immediately available for comment. All senior executives were said to be on their tea break.

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