Earl Grey is any black tea flavored with bergamot. This is a traditional British tea, associated with a certain poshness. It’s flavor is sophisticated, citrusy, and begs to be consumed on a gloomy afternoon, possibly with a book. Earl Grey people, I’ve found, tend to also be the sort of people who like to know the history of the things around them.
This tea is generally accepted to have been named after the British prime minister in the 1830’s, Charles Grey. Outside of a few affairs, most notably one with Duchess of Devonshire Georgiana Cavendish, Grey was a remarkably boring man. This did not stop people from trying to attribute the tea to him in a remarkably creative variety of ways. One story claims that Grey dramatically saved a Chinese man’s son from drowning, and the man named the tea after Grey to show his gratitude. It’s a great story, but Grey never actually went to China, so it’s a bit of a long shot.
According to the Grey family themselves, the tea was specially blended for them to suit the lime-laden water at Howick Hall, the family seat in Northumberland. The bergamot balanced the unusual taste of the water, but was also such an excellent addition that guests requested that Lady Grey make the tea available for purchase.
While both stories are nice, it is most likely that Earl Grey originally had nothing to do with the Prime Minister. Bergamot was being added to black teas in the 1820s, in order to mimic the flavor of particularly fine Chinese black tea. There was a bit of a scandal regarding the false advertisement and in 1837 Brocksop and Co. were accused of selling a tea which was, “artificially scented, and, drugged with bergamot in this country.”
It is likely, though, that Charles Grey received an Earl Grey tea, having never heard of a bergamot tea, and that his wife popularized it among the British upper-class. Thus, Earl Grey tea came to be associated with tradition, with power, and with a certain degree of poshness. This is true to such an extent that, in 2011, when Twinings tried to reformulate its Earl Grey, there was enough backlash to create this facebook page.
Regardless of your attachment to what may be the most British thing ever to exist, Earl Grey is a delicious and sophisticated take on your standard black tea. I personally have become quite the fan of Paris, an Earl Grey which also contains caramel and vanilla. Cream of Earl Grey, an update on the blend which did not incite an angry facebook page in protest to it’s existence, is an Earl Grey with orange, vanilla, and cornflower, which gives it a creamy citrus taste. Mixing our French lavender into Earl Grey creates Earl Grey with Lavender, which makes for a remarkably relaxing and floral cup. Earl Grey with and without lavender are both available in decaf versions, as well. All of these teas finish off the aesthetic of a quiet, possibly rainy afternoon with old friends, or, in their absence, a familiar but beloved book.Tell us which Earl Grey tale you like best. Or perhaps you heard a better one. Tea was marketed aggressively so there are lots of tea tales out there. Comment below. Thanks for reading.