Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
The butler in the popular 1970s television program Upstairs, Downstairs kindly gave the following advice to the household servants who were arguing about the virtues of adding milk before or after the tea is poured: “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”
Until recently, that civilized argument was still voiced in tearooms across America. But today’s informed tea drinkers have moved beyond that endless etiquette conundrum to two greater principles that guide contemporary rituals: How does the tea taste unadulterated, and will the addition of other flavors enhance my enjoyment of that tea? I encourage tea drinkers to taste a new tea first without any additions. Do you recall your mother’s admonition to taste your vegetables before adding salt? The same is true for tea. Pay homage to the workers who picked your tea by taking your tasting habits off autopilot and becoming aware of the multitude of tastes found naturally in a well-made cup of tea. Make your additions only after that initial assessment.
Much of the tea produced in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya is exported to British markets and, therefore, manufactured to be drunk with the addition of milk. Still, I always taste a new black tea first before adding milk, including my breakfast tea. And as a general rule, avoid adding milk to white, green, or oolong teas.
I have placed thousands of cups of tea in the hands of consumers over the past 20 years. When they taste a new tea, one out of five will comment, “It needs sugar.” If you need a bit of sweetener, I suggest sugar cubes at a formal occasion and light honey with green teas. For most flavored teas, a small amount of sugar will accentuate flavors such as cinnamon, raspberry, or cardamom.
Lemon slices continue to be the third-most-common addition to tea in Western cultures. Originally reserved for lighter black teas such as Darjeeling or Ceylon pekoes, lemon is now a common accompaniment to green teas such as sencha. Combining lemon with green tea has an added benefit. Studies suggest citric acid aids in keeping green-tea catechins viable as they pass through the digestive system. A touch of lemon in your green tea may lead to better health.
Of course, milk and lemon are never used together in tea. The citric acid of the lemon causes the milk to curdle. And that would be a major tea faux pas!
Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and Benjamin Press. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.