The Secret Life of Hong Kong Milk Tea

The Secret Life of Hong Kong Milk Tea

We learn the techniques behind making the perfect cup from Tea Master Donald Tse

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Celia Hu  Celia Hu  on 12 Jan '19

A cup of rich, velvety milk tea usually comes to mind when we try to pinpoint an iconic drink that represents Hong Kong. A mix of the region’s colonial and Chinese influences has resulted in a creamy, soothing drink that’s delicious both hot and cold.

We recently sat down with Donald Tse, a Hong Kong milk tea expert, to find out how to craft the perfect cup.


Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a milk tea master?

I started my career as a salesman in a black tea and coffee wholesale company. Since black tea is the main ingredient for Hong Kong-style milk tea, I began to learn how to make it myself. Part of my job was to visit tea restaurants and cha chaan tengs to help to solve the technical problems with making this style of tea.

The craft behind the making of a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea was listed within the First Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Hong Kong in 2014. I started to organise workshops to teach people tea-making techniques and exchange ideas with various milk tea lovers. In 2016, I joined the New Generation Milk Tea Master Training Programme as an instructor. I published a book (絲襪奶茶盛世:香港茶師傅不傳的秘密 ) to showcase the unique cultural significance of this tea.


How is Hong Kong milk tea different from other milk teas around the world? To where can its origins be traced?

Hong Kong milk tea can trace its origins back to when the region was a British colony. At that time, only wealthy British people could afford to enjoy tea. Locals brewed tea from leftover tea residue, which was strong and bitter. Aromatic milk – in particular, robust and creamy evaporated milk – was used to balance the taste.

The combination of Sri Lankan black tea (broken orange pekoe, broken orange fannings and tea dust) and evaporated milk really make Hong Kong-style milk tea stand out from other milk teas.


What are the steps to creating the perfect cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea?

The process can be broken down into four steps: brew, infuse, pour and rest:

Brew: Bring water to a rolling boil and then cool to around 98°C. Slowly add the water to the tea leaves.

Infuse: Place the pot back on the hob and simmer for about 10 minutes. This allow the flavours to fully infuse.

Pour: To bring out the fragrance of the tea, you need to pour it from a greater distance in order to maximise pressure and incorporate more air, making it more fragrant. However, the tea shouldn’t be poured too many times; overextraction can increase bitterness.

Rest: Let the poured tea rest and mix with evaporated milk. The golden ratio is 70 per cent tea and 30 per cent evaporated milk. Milk tea is often served in a thick ceramic cup, which helps to keep the drink hot for longer.


Hot or cold? What is the best way to drink milk tea?

I prefer hot milk tea since the ratio of tea and milk is maintained and not diluted by ice. The heat really highlights the smooth creaminess of the drink.


Tell us how silk stockings came into play when making Hong Kong milk tea.

There have been some misconceptions about the use of silk stocking as strainers for tea. The teabags are actually made of white cotton, but since they are used so frequently, the bags are dyed by the tea leaves, giving them the look of stockings.


Tea Master Donald Tse prefers to use Black & White evaporated milk for his milk tea because it’s the only brand of evaporated milk available in Hong Kong that’s made with 100 per cent fresh milk. The brand has been used since the 1940s in milk tea for its rich, smooth taste.


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Celia Hu

Celia Hu

Editor-at-Large, Jetsetter Food Nomad

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