American tea drinkers might not be aware of the great national debate in the U.K. regarding the proper use of milk in tea. Milk in First (MIF) or Milk in Last (MIL), it seems, is a question critical not only to good English tea enjoyment but is--at times--one of character as well. (See the comments in this Facebook tea group, for example)
But why add milk to tea at all? Certainly many fine teas have a natural sweetness and character that would be obscured or ruined by milk.
As tea explorers, we generally first try all our teas without additions. Greens, Oolongs, and other lighter teas generally don't benefit from additions. When prepared well (e.g., at the right water temperature), they have delightful natural flavors that would be buried under milk.
And though we generally enjoy our Chinese black teas straight, we also like to drink teas in the English style. Even a lovely fruity, floral Darjeeling can at times be rounded by a drop or two of milk.
The addition of milk to tea is an English invention (as is the addition of sugar or lemon). British teas and tea blends are generally highly oxidized black teas with a strong tannic profile. Poorer quality teas were imported to fill burgeoning demand as tea consumption took off in the 18th century; these also tended to be bitter. The addition of milk mellowed the tannic finish of tea and made it more agreeable to the English palate.
The English art of blended teas evolved to match this habit, and thus interesting strong teas (think breakfast blends like English Breakfast or Irish Breakfast) were born.
It's interesting to note that the use of milk in tea has evolved into novel tea drinks in Asia -- generally in areas where colonial Britain made a footprint.
Hong Kong, for example, has become famous for its stocking milk tea.
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