Milk In Tea – Where Did It Start?


Being born in the North of England tends mean that certain things are taken for granted; you will either be a red rose (Lancashire) or a white rose (Yorkshire), you will eat pudding with your beef and gravy, and yes – you will drink your tea good and strong with milk. The milk in tea bit seems to give many of my tea colleagues a great source of ammunition for a dig at the Pom!

But where did this liking for tea with milk added to it come from?

There’s no exact written records to prove the origins of milk in tea, but contrary to common belief it wasn’t the British who started the practise. The origins of milk in tea could go back as far as 900 years during a period in China’s history when the Jurgen tribes from North Eastern China united to establish the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234AD). Later the Jin were to change their name to the Manchu people in 1635.

The Jurchen’s were farmers with some advanced agricultural practises. They grew crops and farmed oxen, pigs, sheep and horses. Dairy products, although in limited quantity, were produced from the milk of these animals. In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan and his Mongol troops attacked the Jurchen people, and after a few years the Jin Dynasty collapsed in 1234. The Mongols still today are famous for their liking of tea which is mixed with milk, salt, and in some cases butter or fat. The milk they use can come from a variety of animals but today is more likely to be cow’s milk. Did the Jurchen develop milk tea which then was adopted by the Mongols as many Jurchen people blended into the Mongol tribes after the fall of the Jin Dynasty?

We certainly know that later during the Qing Dynasty (1626-1911), milk tea was popular with the higher levels of Chinese imperial society and the Manchu people. One particular emperor, Kangxi was very fond of milk tea and it is recorded that at his 60th birthday celebrations in 1713, 1,800 guests were served milk tea. Another emperor fond of the milk tea was the great Emperor Qianlong, who was noted as drinking milk tea with Manchu people.

The next people to enjoy their first taste of tea were Russian Cossacks, who in 1616 were dispatched by Tsar Michael the 1st as envoys to create trade with China. The first two Russians to be recorded as tasting tea were Ivan Petrov and Vasili Tumenets. These two were invited to dinner by Altin Khan after he received gifts sent by the Tsar. They were treated to many kinds of meat including duck, beef, mutton and game, and to accompany this great feast the two Russians were served Mongol milk tea.

With the arrival of tea in Europe, firstly with the Portuguese and later through the Dutch, tea took a foot hold with Europe’s elite, becoming fashionable at many of the Royal Courts. Chinese traditions of drinking tea travelled with the leaf, and were adopted by the European upper classes who then adapted these to suit their own taste. Many European traders and officials had experienced milk tea when dealing with Manchu officials, as it was served at official banquets.

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sevigne would appear to be the first European to write about adding milk to tea around 1671. In one of her famous letters to her daughter she reminds the daughter to offer milk with the tea when entertaining guests. Another famous country women of the Marquise, was Madame de la Sabliere, who in 1680 at her famous Parisian salon served milk with tea.

By the mid 1600’s, tea had become a very fashionable and expensive pass time for the British upper class. In 1698 Lady Rachel Russell wrote to her daughter and described little bottles she had come across, saying “Little bottles to pour out milk for tea – they call them milk bottles.” Much of the tea being consumed in Europe around this time was green tea, with the darker Chinese congou, souchong, and pekoe teas(which were also referred to as bohea) being preferred later.

The Victorian era gave rise and prominence to the “low” or “afternoon tea”, where ladies gathered to chat and have sandwiches, savouries, cakes, scones, and tea. This was an opportunity to impress their guests with one’s home, elegant tea wares, and knowledge of etiquette. During this time it was most definitely the fashion to offer milk either cold or warmed with the tea. With the arrival of teas from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the opportunity of drinking tea became more readily available to the working classes of Great Britain. This gave rise to many of the well-known big brands such as Brooke Bond, Tetley, Lyons, and Lipton’s.

The early 20th century saw tea and its consumption become affected by two world wars, the tea total movement, and growing and migrating populations. In the early part of the 20th century Australians were the largest black tea drinkers with an average of 3.4kg per person per year. The mug of white billy tea was a staple part of an Australian way of life. In Hong Kong, a city which owes much to tea for its existence, you will find the famous simat naaicha being served in cha chanteng (tea restaurants) all around the city. This sweet silky milk tea has become synonymous with Hong Kong life style. In India masala chai – or spiced tea – is served sweet and milky on every street corner in cities like Kolkata, the city of its creation. Chai, as we refer to it, has over the last few years taken the world by storm, and been a part of the new found interest in tea. In many different countries around the world and in many different cultures, you will hear tea drinkers requesting “An English style tea with milk, please.”

So today, before you attempt to ridicule a tea drinker who happens to enjoy their tea with milk, stop for a moment and think how much history has gone into the fashion of taking tea with milk. Remember – as long as you’re enjoying tea the way you like it, no one can tell you it’s wrong whether that’s with or without milk!


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