Milk in first with Earl Grey?

How do you like your tea?

I’m now addicted to caffeine after drinking too much tea in Stockport last week.

It’s an universal truth that Tilly Bud (The Laughing Housewife) drinks Earl Grey Tea. When she made me the Earl Grey tea, I noticed she would always pour milk in first.

If you have your tea with milk, do you add the hot water first, or do you add the milk first?

I’ve always been fascinated by how English people make their tea. Some people told me the Queen would add milk in her tea first, but some people told me she would add the hot water first.

I’m on my quest to find out the answer.

Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, in her fascinating book, Watching the English (2004), wrote about the hidden rules of English behaviour, especially the British class system. She mentioned some social observations about tea.

Kate Fox, Watching the English

Kate Fox, Watching the English

In ‘Breakfast Rules — and Tea Beliefs’ (pg 311), Kate Fox mentioned that “The upper-middle and upper classes drink weak, dishwater-coloured, unsweetened Earl Grey. Taking sugar in your tea is regarded by many as an infallible lower-class indicator: even one spoonful is a bit suspect (unless you were born before about 1955); more than one and you are lower-middle at least; more than two and you are definitely working class. Putting the milk into the cup first is also a lower-class habit, as is over-vigorous, noisy stirring.” 

Based on this research, as Tilly doesn’t add sugar in her tea, I think Tilly is possibly somewhere between the upper middle and working class.

We took two buses to visit Manchester last Thursday. To entertain my 12 year old son, we had to visit a place with dinosaurs and lizards. Luckily Manchester Museum was the perfect place.

On our way back to the bus stop, we came across this cafe called teacup on Thomas Street.

Image by Ghostly Tom via Gostly Tom's Travel Blog

Image by Ghostly Tom from Ghostly Tom’s Travel Blog

My son asked why Tilly and I giggled so much when we saw these words, “50 Shades of Earl Grey’. It was hard to explain. Tilly patiently explained to him that 50 Shades of Grey is a book for some adults, and the concept of 50 Shades of something has entered the lexicon of English. Look, this is how Tilly pronounced the word, lexicOn (con as in corn). I told her I pronounced this word differently with a schwa. I pronounce it ‘lexiken’ (as in the vowel in ‘earn’).

Image by Kevin Harber via Flickr

Image by Kevin Harber via Flickr

In the few days together, I heard myself saying, “Excuse me. Sorry. I beg your pardon? I didn’t catch what you’ve just said.” Tilly must have been so fed up with this Chinese person.

Tom 50 shades

Image by Ghostly Tom from Ghostly Tom’s Travel Blog

For those readers who are not familiar with the fuss about the novel, 50 Shades of Grey, please don’t ask me for details. I have no intention to read this book.

I also told Tilly that some British hotels removed the Bible, and replaced it with this erotic novel in their hotel rooms. Tilly was shocked. Here’s the link to the report:

Vicar condemns hotel after it replaces Gideon Bible with 50 Shades of Grey

Finally, I would like to thank Ghostly Tom from Manchester for kindly sharing his two 50 Shades of Earl Grey images on this post. I sent him my request this morning, and he kindly agreed and even promised to take me to this cafe next time.

I think people in Manchester are really nice.

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47 thoughts on “Milk in first with Earl Grey?

  1. misswhiplash

    Earl Grey is best without milk and definitely no sugar…plain good tea! I will write to the Queen and ask her about her tea habits..then I will let you know

  2. misswhiplash

    seems she drinks Earl Grey every afternoon at 5pm which she pours for herself into a bone china cup. It does not say if she has milk or not. She also has biscuits or a sone with her 5 pm tea… Any other tea dutring the day is made by servants and is made from a variety of teas from Fortnum and Mason

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Of course de-caf is fine. Tilly has a good selection of normal and non decaf tea. She has a strange recycling system with her used teabags, and I’m wondering if you recycled the normal non-decay teabags, would this weakened version of non-decay tea be equivalent to using a fresh decaf tea?

  3. Opalla

    I prefer my Earl Grey without milk or sugar. I once heard that by putting milk in first before pouring your tea and prevent the hot tea breaking the China teacup. Well, does it mean that if you were upper class, you wouldn’t care whether your fine China cup break or not????

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      I think you’re right here about the tea cup. Bill has given a great answer (see below). In cold weather, I definitely add milk to my tea. I also love drinking Chinese tea or Japanese green tea to enjoy their delicate flavour.

  4. Bill Hayes

    I understood the reason why you pour the milk in first is so that as you pour in the boiling tea it slowly heats up the milk. Whereas pouring milking a piping hot cup of tea suddenly, will curdle the milk slightly and distract one’s palate from the subtle flavour of the tea therein. Of course, that’s when you are drinking out of bone china this all matters. Nowadays we use thicker china cups or mugs, which absorbes the heat from the tea allowing the milk to be safetly poured in.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      What a lot of good knowledge here! Thank you Bill. This seems to explain a lot — at least it sounds like a good answer to me.

      I’ve just checked a British website for children. It said:

      Britain is a tea-drinking nation. Every day we drink 165 million cups of the stuff and each year around 144 thousand tons of tea are imported.

      Tea in Britain is traditionally brewed in a warmed china teapot, adding one spoonful of tea per person and one for the pot. Most Britons like their tea strong and dark, but with a lot of milk.

      Interesting Fact
      Years ago, the milk was poured into the cup first, so as not to crack the porcelain.

      The traditional way of making tea is:

      • Boil some fresh cold water. (We use an electric kettle to boil water)
      • Put some hot water into the teapot to make it warm.
      • Pour the water away
      • Put one teaspoon of tea-leaves per person, and one extra tea-spoon, into the pot.
      • Pour boiling water onto the tea.
      • Leave for a few minutes.
      • Serve

      Source: Woodlands Junior School

      1. Janet Williams Post author

        Tea pot for English tea?

        I just used a mug. If I can be bothered, I would warm the mug first.

        But with Chinese tea, I would always warm the teapot and little cups.

  5. Ruby

    Tea needs to be made with boiling hot water otherwise it doesn’t brew properly. Therefore, if you are making the tea in a mug (or cup), you should pour water in first, then add the milk once it has brewed (and you have removed the bag). Adding milk first makes the liquid too cool to make a decent cuppa.

    When making tea on a pot (which is a far better way to do it), I tend to pour milk first as this is how I have been brought up. This could be because of the porcelain thing above (not that I think we ever had porcelain cups afaik). But also, I think the two liquids mix better if the greater (tea) is added to the lesser (milk).

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Do I need to know so much about tea now?

      I didn’t expect all these comments you know. 🙂

      I don’t think ‘boiling hot water’ is the right way though. I thought the water needs to be hot but not boiling hot!?

      1. Ruby

        You’re probably right. Technically the water is unlikely to be boiling unless you pour while the kettle is still switched on, which doesn’t seem a very safe thing to do. However, it does need to be as near boiling as a possible.
        Coffee, on the other hand, does need to be made with water “just off the boil” – they say you should leave the kettle for 30 seconds before boiling.

        You know those instant hot water things that were around a few years ago (I don’t know if they ever caught on). The sales pitch then said that the heated water enough for coffee but not for tea.

        Both tea and coffee should, as you mentioned above, be made with freshly drawn water. Reheating previously boiled water just doesn’t work.

        Isn’t it amazing – British people are generally apathetic when it comes to important stuff like voting in elections, but we all have an opinion on how tea and coffee should be made!

    2. A1rh3ad

      Boiling “flattens” the water. It really detracts from the flavor. If the water is just before boiling it makes the flavor of the tea more vibrant.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      The tea thing — it’s so personal and even emotional.

      Interesting about Brown Rice Tea. I used to have some Genmaicha (玄米茶, “brown rice tea”) as well, and its rice fragrance was very strong. I prefer Japanese green tea.

  6. Alex Boyd

    So many different opinions on Earl Grey.

    Since everyone’s taste buds have been scientifically proven to be different, I think that people should judge for themselves how they want to make their Earl Grey.

    Our tea experts definitely feel that milk should be added last to avoid curdling.

    In the 18th century, when porcelain was extremely expensive, people put the milk in first to protect their china. However, this should be unnecessary, as porcelain is fired at over 1,200 degrees, whereas tea will only be a meagre 100 degrees.

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    All my life, the tea has been made in a pot – left to brew for 5 minutes and then poured onto the milk in the cup when it is nice and strong. Earl Grey to me is like drinking bath water! I bought it specially for Tilly and Co, also for my daughter. Green tea when my son comes!

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Ahhhh, Tilly and I drank a lot of “bath water” each day. Her son got tea delivered to his room each morning, unfortunately I didn’t get such excellent room service.

      1. Ruby

        There is an ongoing “dispute” in my family. When I visit my father I always get a cup of tea brought to my room in the morning, despite saying that I don’t want one. When he visits me, he never gets one, despite saying that he would like one!

      2. Janet Williams Post author

        Your father is very generous and he ‘serves’ you. In a Chinese family, it’s a filial son who should ‘serve’ his father. But, why would people like to drink in bed? Don’t you need to wake up, clean your teeth first before drinking tea? Should I start worrying about the hygiene of some British people?

      3. Ruby

        I think you have touched on the crux of my argument. if I’m awake enough to drink tea, I should get up., If I’m not awake enough to drink tea I should be left to sleep.

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