In Hong Kong, milk tea is a ubiquitous beverage that’s found on nearly every block. On the daily, the city is estimated to drink around 2.5 million cups of milk tea a year. That’s 8.5 Olympic-sized pools of the brown beverage.
While milk in tea is nothing new, Hong Kong’s rendition is particularly unique. It’s a mixture of heavily oxidized blended black tea leaves and evaporated milk, at a general ratio of 70 to 30. The tea is boiled and strained through a cloth filter multiple times, a process called “pulling.”
For enthusiasts, the rate and height at which the tea is pulled is what makes or breaks the beverage.
But to understand Hong Kong’s iconic milk tea of today, let’s go back to its origins.
Ceylon tea, in tea bags
All tea styles (green, black, white, oolong, and so on) come from one plant: Camellia sinensis. Although tea was originally from China, Hong Kong’s milk tea is instead sourced from Sri Lanka, thanks to British influence from the territory’s colonial past.
Ceylon tea, named after Sri Lanka’s name under British colonial rule, usually comes in the form of a blend of leaves sourced from multiple farms throughout the country. The leaves are typically pulverized into tea bags.
This is a completely different approach from traditional Chinese tea, which prizes whole, intact leaves from a single origin and doesn’t often come in tea bags.
Traditional Chinese tea doesn't come in bags.
Robert Godden, whose firm The Devotea is an American tea blending company, said that blended tea’s popularity outside of China arose out of necessity to maintain consistency of exported tea as it made its voyage to the West.
“If a container of tea didn’t travel too well, you could mix it with a container that did travel well and sell it all for a premium price.
“The English were looking for consistency and the same taste year after year,” Godden said. “The [benefit] of blending was that you could change the mix of it to offer that consistency.”
It’s gotta be strong
The downside of crushed tea leaves in a bag, however, is that the tea dust within steeps at a much quicker rate because of the increased surface area. The higher extraction rate results in a faster release of tannins, and they’re more susceptible to oxidation, which compromises the quality of the leaves.
But some local providers such as Kampery told us that the strong flavor of tea bags is crucial for milk tea, and that the two cannot be separated. The company supplies a quarter of the tea in Hong Kong and counts among their clients local teahouse juggernauts Tsui Wah and Tai Hing.
Kampery’s blend is a mix of broken orange pekoe leaves, fannings, and dust in a tea bag. Orange pekoe is a black tea of medium grade. Fannings are the leftover smaller pieces of tea, and tea dust is even finer.
To make a proper cup, the tea bag is boiled in a tall tea pot, strained multiple times, and then combined with a dollop of evaporated milk (as opposed to fresh milk).
Evaporated milk for texture magic
Milk is neither found in traditional Chinese cuisine, nor was it readily available as a raw ingredient. Some studies have indicated that roughly 90 percent of Chinese people are lactose malabsorbers.
Its presence in Hong Kong first came about from Western demand. Without a milk industry in Greater China, condensed milk was brought in because it didn’t easily spoil over the journey. According to Nestlé, Great Britain and its colonies at the time procured the highest demand for condensed milk worldwide.
"Smooth, creamy, and full-bodied."
“The use of evaporated milk was initially a coping strategy because fresh milk was too expensive for ordinary people and difficult to get,” says Selina Chan, a professor of sociology at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. “But this gave Hong Kong milk tea a taste that was smooth, creamy, and full-bodied, which is very different from the light and diluted taste of British milk tea.”
Uniquely Hong Kong
Today, the milk tea is a symbol of pride in Hong Kong. In 2017, the milk tea was declared an item of “intangible culture heritage.” Among the lengthy inventory of things that the government has pledged to protect, milk tea is only one of three food items that made it to the list.
"It has to do with decolonization and Hong Kong’s identity."
“Milk tea has become a reputable drink in Hong Kong now because it has to do with decolonization and Hong Kong’s identity. That became obvious in the 1990s because shortly before the eve of decolonization, a lot of people were looking for Hong Kong heritage to show that they were different from the mainlanders and that they were different from the British,” Chan says.
She is referring to the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule, a period of time where Hong Kongers were defining their unique identity.
“Around this time, cha chaan teng [cafes] and milk tea entered the discourse of public narrative. They helped the locals construct their identity and distinguish themselves,” she says.
Today, there are entire competitions dedicated to milk tea. It’s become an art. What originally started out as a beverage inherited from another culture has now morphed into a symbol of individuality.