The Reason The Brits Put Milk In Their Tea Isn't What You Think

Black tea is very famously the national drink of Great Britain and has been the beverage of choice for centuries. Per The Tea Master's Blog on the website of the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum, throughout the 17th century only the wealthiest Brits could afford to drink tea, as there was a 100% tariff tacked onto tea when it was imported into the country. However, after the War of Independence ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1784, the tea tax was lowered to a flat 12.5%, making it accessible to the public rather than a luxury reserved for the rich. That very year, French writer François de La Rochefoucauld observed, "The drinking of tea is general throughout England. It is drunk twice a day, and although it is still very expensive, even the humblest peasant will take his tea twice a day, like the proudest; it is a huge consumption." 

To this day, as reported by the UK Tea & Infusions Society, British people drink approximately 100 million cups of tea each day, continuing to edge out coffee in nationwide popularity, which itself clocks in at 70 millions cups a day. Great Britain in the second largest per capita tea-drinking nation, following only the Republic of Ireland in terms of tea drinkers. Furthermore, the Society claims that 98% of the tea drank in England is taken with milk. Why do British people overwhelmingly choose to cut their tea with milk?

Delicate china caused Brits to add milk to their tea

According to writer and editor Amrita Thakkar of the blog Taste of Home, the British custom of adding milk to tea extends back to the 18th century, when tea was brewed in pots and drunk out of china cups. Because most people couldn't afford good bone china, the cheaper china in most teacups had a tendency to crack when it came in contact with boiling hot tea. A handy solution was to pour milk into the cup first, then add the hot tea. The milk would cool the tea and preserve the integrity of the cup. Other benefits of this practice included cutting the tea's often bitter flavor and reducing the amount of still-expensive tea used per cup. Poorer families tended to drink large amounts of milk with just a splash of tea added, while wealthier families would do the reverse and drink dark tea with just a small amount of milk. 

Thanks to British class consciousness and snobbery, adding tea before milk is actually considered "wrong" when it comes to formal etiquette. As reported by the Mirror, the so-called propriety of "Tea In First (TIF)" was confirmed by royal butler Grant Harrold during a BBC Three comedy segment on British etiquette in 2018. The Mirror noted that those wealthy enough to afford the aforementioned status symbol of bone china tea services took special pride in being able to pour piping hot tea right into their teacups without cracking the porcelain, thus making Milk In First, or "MIF," déclassé to those who pay attention to such things.