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Earl Grey tea is one of the most recognized tea blends in the world. It’s been my personal favorite tea for a while and I think it’s a great introduction to tea. Earl Grey’s lightness makes it great for people who normally find black tea too intense, and its citrus flavor makes drinking it fun and memorable.
In this article, you will learn what makes Earl Grey such a distinguished flavored tea blend, its history, health benefits, its culinary uses, preparation guide, storage tips, and more. It might just become your new favorite afternoon tea.
What is Earl Grey Tea?
Earl Grey tea is a popular blend that’s been flavored with bergamot oil. Most commonly black teas are used to create it. Traditionally, light varieties of black tea were used, such as Chinese Keemun, but nowadays Earl Grey can be found with more robust Ceylon tea or even smoky Lapsang Souchong.
Sometimes, the tea itself is a blend of several straight teas which differ from one tea producer to another. The exact recipe may even be a closely-guarded secret.
Tasting Earl Grey Tea
The classical Earl Grey black tea features noticeable, but not overpowering citrus notes, and bright tea flavors. This combination creates a distinctive brew that’s easy to like and remember. The dry tea leaves, infused with bergamot oil, give off a bold and inviting smell, that I personally love.
I find that bergamot oil doesn’t give tea much of a taste on its own. What it does add is fragrance and some subtle notes of citrus fruit. On the other hand, the type of tea used impacts the overall brew significantly. Depending on the tea used as a base, Earl Grey can be bright or malty, light or robust, smoky and tangy, or sweet and mellow.
Tea companies are free to create their own versions of Earl Grey because there’s no registered trademark and no official instruction or recipe for blending it.
Want to skip the search and just get my hand-selected Earl Grey loose-leaf tea? Get it from my online tea shop.
How is Earl Grey Made?
When I want to get to know a brand or a supplier, one of the teas I always order is Earl Grey. It tests the love and the care that the brand has for their teas because creating balanced Earl Grey teas isn’t easy.
Synthetic bergamot oil is a popular choice with manufacturers because of its consistent flavor and safety for people with citrus allergies. In this instance, the tea leaves are spray-coated with bergamot oil.
However, I find that it is easy to overdo it with synthetic oil, which results in an unpleasant sensation in the mouth and a strong aftertaste. Much like when you breathe in a cloud of perfume – you can almost feel its taste in the mouth.
Alternatively, dried bergamot orange rinds are added to the tea leaves. The rinds release their natural oils over time and infuse the tea leaves. This tends to result in a more mellow flavor that is harder to consistently get right.
Like any other tea, Earl Grey is only as good as the leaves that you use to make it from. Hopefully, you’re not using tea bags, because you won’t find high-quality tea in them, even if the package says otherwise. Get some good loose-leaf tea from specialized tea shops, like Viston Tea.
History and Origins of Earl Grey Tea
There is no definitive answer about the origins of Earl Grey tea. However, it’s been suggested that the blend is named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey who was a British Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834. There is a story popularized by Twinnings, that claims:
Association With Charles Grey
The Grey family reports that a Chinese mandarin custom-blended it for Charles Grey, to offset the taste of lime in the spring water at his residence. They say that Lady Grey has subsequently popularized it during political meetings. Later, the blend’s popularity took off when Twinnings started selling and marketing Earl Grey tea blend worldwide as their own.
Popular Theory Refuted
In reality, the term “Earl Grey” hasn’t been used in the context of tea before 1884 – nearly four decades after Chales’ death. Yet, bergamot was already used as a flavoring in tea as early as 1824, before Charles became the Prime Minister. At the time, however, bergamot flavoring has been mostly associated with low-quality tea, as a means to enhance its taste:
[…] if we can discover any fine flavoured substance and add it to the tea in a proper manner, we shall be able to improve low-priced and flavourless tea into a high-priced article of fine flavour. The flavouring substance found to agree best with the original flavour of tea is the oil of bergamot, by the proper management of which you may produce from the cheapest teas the finest flavoured Bloom, Hyson, Gunpowder and Cowslip.‘”Lancaster Gazette“, Saturday 22 May 1824, p3
In 1837, Brockshop & Co. faced charges for adding bergamot to poor-quality tea and marketing it as a luxury product. This contradicts the story told by Twinnings and the Grey family, as in the early 1830s, the blend would’ve been viewed as disreputable. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that Earl Grey would’ve championed the tea or recommended it to the Queen.
Multiple Claims to Authorship
Who was the real author of the original blend is unclear, because multiple tea merchants, including Twinnings and Jacksons of Piccadilly, claimed ownership in the early 20th century.
The signature that Twinnings showcase on their packaging was obtained through the endorsement of Richard, the sixth Earl Grey (born 1939), and it seems more like a marketing ploy than any proof that Twinnings were the original author.
So Who Really Created Earl Grey Tea?
The exact origin of the Earl Grey blend is yet to be determined. There’s evidence to show that Charlton and Co. could be the originators of the blend because they’re the first ones to advertise the “Earl Grey’s Mixture”. Though, it’s unknown if the tea contained bergamot flavoring.
Most likely Earl Grey tea was developed independently and the title “Earl” was only added later to make it sound more classy. But such a boring story wouldn’t help tea makers sell their tea, would it?
Bergamot essential oil has relaxing properties, which makes it the perfect tea to enjoy in the afternoon. Additionally, black tea boasts significant health benefits of its own:
- Polyphenols in black tea are powerful antioxidants that can help digestion, and aid in preventing cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
- Earl Grey tea, like other black tea, contains caffeine, around 50mg per cup on average, which is 2 times less than coffee. It will give you an energy boost, but will not cause jitters like coffee might.
- Drinking black tea can reduce your risk of having a stroke, as shown in a Swedish study that followed 74,961 people over 10 years.
In addition to its health benefits, black tea is as hydrating as water, so it can replace the boring water as a portion of your daily fluid intake.
Drinking Earl Grey tea is generally safe. However, consumption in excess amounts can lead to bergamot toxicity which interferes with potassium intake. There is an anecdotal report of cramps and muscle twitching associated with Earl Grey tea. However, if it’s not the only thing you drink all day every day, you have nothing to worry about
Variations and Recipes
Earl Grey may not be entirely your cup of tea, and that’s ok. Nowadays the term “Earl Grey” describes almost any tea that contains bergamot flavoring. There are also many Earl Grey-inspired blends. You have Lady Grey tea, for people who find bergamot a bit too intense, or Earl Grey Crème, for those who enjoy an addition of vanilla.
Lady Grey has been marketed by Twinnings as a feminine alternative to Earl Grey, which was considered too strong by some women. It contains much the same ingredients, but with an addition of lemon and orange peels.
Smoky Earl Grey
Those who find the original a bit too light will enjoy the Smoky Earl Grey. It uses Lapsang Souchong as a base tea for the blend, which adds a smoky flavor and creates a more full-bodied, robust brew.
You can find other takes on Earl Grey, that don’t use black tea as a base tea, like:
- Russian Earl Grey – in addition to the usual black tea and bergamot, contains pieces of citrus peels and sometimes lemongrass.
- Earl Green – you guessed it! Green tea with bergamot oil.
- Earl Red / Earl Rooibos – a similar blend that uses rooibos as a base, a plant grown in Africa, that unlike tea does not contain caffeine.
With so many different variations on the age-old blend, you will easily find at least one that you enjoy. When purchasing, be sure to look for loose-leaf tea instead of the one in tea bags.
Earl Grey Cocktails
Because of Earl Grey’s popularity, it was inevitable that somebody put some alcohol in it. Turns out, it goes well with rum, gin, whiskey, bourbon, and vodka! The fragrance of bergamot orange lends to some exciting cocktails. Check out the basic preparation instructions here – “Earl Grey Tea Cocktail“. Be sure to try the Earl Grey Mar-tea-ni!
Baking With Earl Grey
The usage of tea in food is not unknown, especially with home cooks. Earl Grey is especially popular in confectionaries. If you like baking cakes or cookies, consider using Earl Grey the next time you bake. Here are some interesting recipes for you to try:
- Earl Grey and lavender scones
- Earl Grey panna cotta tarts
- Vegan Earl Grey cupcakes & blueberry frosting
- Earl Grey Macarons
Earl Grey tea with scones made with the same tea? That’s some next-level afternoon tea party!
How to Brew Earl Grey Tea?
Earl Grey follows the same preparation instructions as most black teas. I encourage you to use loose-leaf black tea, in which case you’ll need a teapot or a strainer. To brew it correctly:
- Put 1 teaspoon, around 2g of loose tea leaves per cup of water in a teapot or an infuser.
- Bring fresh water to a boil and pour it on the tea leaves.
- Steep for 3 to 5 minutes, longer times will produce a stronger brew.
- Pour the tea out of the teapot, or strain tea leaves to remove them from the water.
- Let the tea cool down for a bit and enjoy!
While it’s not typical to add milk to Earl Grey tea, you can if that’s what you like, but make sure you add milk first, then tea. Optionally, sweeten with some sugar.
How to Store Earl Grey Tea?
Tea is excellent at absorbing smells – be it bergamot, or onion. Therefore, it’s important to store your tea correctly.
To ensure that your tea doesn’t go stale for as long as possible:
- Store it in a dark, dry, and cool place – a kitchen cabinet is perfect.
- Keep it away from strong smells.
- Don’t store tea in a fridge, because water will condense on the tea ruining it.
When stored correctly, loose-leaf tea can stay fresh for several months, or even up to two years.
Earl Grey is a favorite drink of many tea lovers, and not without reason. Many teas have subtle tastes, that sometimes only real tea lovers can appreciate. This is where Earl Grey is special – it’s easy to understand, and that’s why so many people love it. The pungent bergamot fragrance tells you what to expect the moment you open the package.
Its marketing, by associating it with upper-classes and royalty, has made it seem posh to drink Earl Grey, in the modern culture. However, it’s just another tea blend, not unlike English Breakfast or Indian Chai. Even its origins might really be not that exciting.
On the other hand, Earl Grey is the perfect tea to enjoy in the afternoon. It has relaxing properties and goes well with various foods. You can also turn it into a cocktail or use it in cookies or cake. I consider it one of the best introductory teas. There are so many different variations of Earl Grey to choose from, you will certainly find one that you love.
Read about the best teas to drink when you’re sick next: “Best Tea For Sore Throats: 8 That Really Work“.
Let me know in the comments – which tea was the first one that amazed you?