Earl Grey is a black tea that is flavoured with oil from the rind of bergamot orange, a fruit grown in Italy, France and South East Asia. Variations on the traditional blend include Lady Grey (a blend of earl grey with blue cornflower blossoms), Russian Earl Grey (Earl Grey with pieces of citrus peel and lemongrass) and Red Earl Grey (rooibos and bergamot).
Responsible for the name of the tea is Charles Grey. Charles was an English aristocrat who was educated in Eton and Cambridge and elected to Parliament at the age of 22. He married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby (daughter of Baron Ponsonby of Imokilly, Co. Cork) and had six daughter and ten sons. Before he was married he had an illegitimate daughter with the Duchess of Devonshire, which is the subject of the movie “The Duchess”. He was prime minister of England from November 1830 to July 1834 and inherited the title of Earl from his father. Charles Grey was noted for advocating Parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation. Two of his most notable reforms were the Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 but interestingly the monopoly of the East India Company in Britain’s trade with China ended while he was prime minister.
How he became associated with the tea is unclear. There are stories of good deeds in China that resulted in the recipe for the tea coming to his ownership. Another version tells how the blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot oranges were shipped together from diplomats in China and the fruit flavour was absorbed by the tea during shipping. Yet another version of the story involves a Chinese mandarin friend of the Earl blending this tea to offset the taste of limescale in the water at his home (at Howick Hall). In reality, it is not absolutely clear why the tea was named after Charles. However, the tea was served by the Greys when they hosted gatherings and Jackson’s of Piccadilly say that they introduced the blend in 1836 to “meet the wishes of a former Earl Grey”.
As a person who claims to not like flavoured tea, I currently have seven different varieties of Earl Grey on my shelf. Last Saturday I brewed all seven to compare and contrast. Among them were four loose leaf teas, one whole-leaf tea bag and two CTC tea bags. Historically, Earl Grey has a reputation for involving low quality teas that are masked by the bergamot but each of these was absolutely drinkable and most of them were very pleasant. Going through the distinctions of each would get tedious so I’ve shortlisted the best of the crop.
The nicest tea was a blend of Chinese black tea from Tea Palace. It was a beautiful earthy tea that was balanced with a gentle bergamot flavour. Second place went to a blend from Damman Frères. The presence of blue cornflower blossoms and sunflower petals means that technically this is a Lady Grey but it was sold as Earl Grey so we included it. The Chinese black tea in this blend stood up well with the bright citrus flavour and again gave a harmonious flavour. Of the two CTC teabags, the Marks and Spencer brand was the more interesting of the two. It used a Sri Lankan black tea that gave their blend a rich, powerful base.
The most interesting conclusion from tasting all these teas is that aroma of the loose leaf gives very little indication of the taste. The strong perfume smell of the Dammann Frères was off-putting but that overpowering fragrance did not translate to the taste. Similarly, one of the teas was an earl grey lavender and the aroma was distinctly soap-like. But again, that soapiness did not translate to taste.
Some notes on preparing earl grey tea: Freshly boiled water should be used. A steep time of 1.5 minutes is good for the loose leaf teas (3g tea and 150 ml water). The CTC tea bags steep in 40 – 45 seconds (200 ml water). All the teas were drank black.