“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!” Even if your only experience with tea is hearing Captain Picard ordering his favorite beverage from the Enterprise’s food replicator, you’ve probably heard of Earl Grey. Brisk and delicate at the same time, ever-popular Earl Grey tea is perfect for everything from your morning caffeine kick to your Downton Abbey-themed tea party. But there’s more to the Earl than you might think!
What is Earl Grey?
Earl Grey is black tea flavored with bergamot.
- Bergamot oranges are citrus fruits, roughly the size of an orange and with a yellowish interior like a lemon, that are primarily grown in the region of Calabria in Southern Italy. They are often used in flavoring, aromatherapy products, and the like.
Traditionally, Earl Grey teas are flavored with the oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot, although synthetically flavored teas also exist. The bergamot gives it a citrus flavor; to me, it’s somewhere between lemon and lime, but lighter than either.
The combination of black tea’s caffeinated briskness and bergamot’s citrus makes Earl Grey a good breakfast tea and a classic afternoon tea. It’s easy to understand its appeal: it’s elegant, invigorating, and cleansing, just interesting enough to be tasty but not complicated enough to be finicky.Earl Grey is often associated with gentility, but it’s actually one of the most affordable and least pretentious teas out there. (Most flavored black teas are relatively inexpensive.) Because of its popularity, it is very easy to find both bagged and loose-leaf versions of Earl Grey.
The History of Earl GreyThere are several takes and some controversy on this tea’s history. It is named for Charles Grey, a British aristocrat from the House of Lords who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1830 to 1834. Some accounts of the tea’s origin:
- Grey was shipped gifts of tea and bergamot oranges, which got mixed during shipping, causing the tea to absorb the bergamot flavor
- A Chinese mandarin at Grey’s home blended a tea with bergamot to offset the minerals in the water
- A company named Jacksons’ of Piccadilly claims to have introduced the tea to meet Grey’s wishes in 1836
- And, of course, the story reproduced by Adagio:
It is said that in 1830, an Englishman named Charles Earl Grey traveled on a diplomatic mission to China, where in return for his act of kindness, a local man presented him with the recipe for making this distinctive tea. A few corrections are in order. Firstly, the Chinese have never been black tea drinkers, and were unlikely to have a recipe for Earl Grey to bestow on visitors. Secondly, Charles Earl Grey never set foot in China. Otherwise, the story is completely true.
Earl Grey has historically been used as a drink mixer, particularly with gin, in Great Britain. Working-class households in the 19th century would often mix Earl Grey with otherwise nasty-tasting alcohol. During the early 20th century, the tea was associated with alcoholism in the upper-middle class women who would mix it with their drinks.
How to Prepare It
Just like any black tea.
- 1 tsp per cup of water
- 200º – boiling water
- 3 – 5 minute steep in teapot
- Add milk & sugar if you wish
- Does not resteep well
Variations of Earl Grey
Lady Grey – Also contains lemon peel and orange peel oil.
Earl Grey Creme – Also contains cream, which both contrasts and softens the bergamot.
Earl Grey Lavender – Also contains lavender flavoring, which provides another dimension to the brisk element of the flavor.
Earl ____ – Many companies produce bergamot-flavored teas with non-black teas as a base, such as Earl White (white tea base) or Earl Red (rooibos base.)
My Experience with Earl Grey
- Harney & Sons make three different gradients: Earl Grey, Earl Grey Imperial, and Earl Grey Supreme. I’ve had the Imperial and the Supreme, and recommend the Supreme (higher quality leaves, better flavor base.)
- Teavana’s was my first Earl Grey. This may be an unpopular opinion, as the flavoring seems synthetic, but I actually like it. It always makes me think of foggy days and brisk air.
- Mahamosa also makes a decent one.
Earl Grey Lavender
- Adagio’s version is my boss’s favorite tea. I’m not a huge bergamot/lavender fan, but every time she brews a cup, the office smells delightful.
Earl Grey Creme
- Mahamosa’s is what I’m sipping on at the moment. It’s one of my favorite teas.
- Zen Tea has the most highly rated version on Steepster. It’s a bit much for me, but both the bergamot and the cream flavors are very well-defined.