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A Grey Area: All about Earl Grey

18th August 2009

Ask anyone to name a famous type of tea and Earl Grey will surely spring to mind. According to a survey by Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine earlier this year, Earl Grey is the nation's second favourite tea, nabbing 14% of the vote.

Only just pipped to the post by the classic English Breakfast blend, Alex Fullerton finds out more about this distinctive scented tea...


History Lesson

Traditionally, Earl Grey is a blend of black China teas treated with natural oils of the Bergamot citrus fruit, which gives the tea a distinctive perfumed aroma and flavour. Legend has it that the tea was created in honour of Prime Minister, Charles Grey (the 2nd Earl Grey) who had helped rescue the drowning son of a Chinese mandarin while on a diplomatic mission. The mandarin was so grateful that he presented the Earl with the blend in 1803 - but documents have revealed that the Earl never even set foot in China! Realistically, it's more likely that the Earl received a gift of China tea flavoured with the distinctive bergamot flavour - and it become known as his eponymous blend.

Another claim to the tea's creation comes from Jacksons of Piccadilly - Lord Grey apparently gave the recipe to the firm in 1830 and they claim to be continuing to make the original blend today.

What's in it?

Originally made from black China teas (especially the Keemun variety)Earl Grey gets it's unique, citrus flavour from the addition of oil extract from bergamot fruit - a relation of the orange. Bergamot are indigenous to South East Asia and are also grown in Italy as a commercial crop. According to Master Tea Blender Alex Probyn, "there are many different grades of bergamot that can be used to flavour the tea so consumers shouldn't assume one brand will taste the same as another". Depending on the blend you could be drinking tea containing oil, granules or spray from the fruit, but as long as the flavouring imparts enough strength to the tea and has plenty of longevity, you'll always have a delicious cup.

Alex Probyn, Master Tea Blender points out that "although Earl Grey was traditionally based on a Chinese tea - which can often provide an earthy character that tempers the citrus character provided by bergamot - for a more light and delicate flavour a Sri Lankan Uva - with natural citrus top notes - can (also) be perfect".

Why is it so popular?

Even in the most basic cafes you'll usually be able to find Earl Grey on the menu (although members of The Tea Guild all offer dozens of delicious blends, eloquently described!). It seems that people are drawn to drink Earl Grey as it's more 'exciting' than regular Breakfast or Afternoon blends (and therefore more 'special') but at the same time it's not so alien as to be off-putting. Karl Kessab, tea sommelier at The Lanesborough confirms that, after the hotel's signature blend, Earl Grey is the most ordered tea. "Earl Grey is a safe alternative to English Breakfast" he opines. "It's a black tea but the smell and taste of the bergamot oil make it that much more exotic".

Although some find Earl Grey's fragrance too perfumed for everyday drinking "it's such a quintessentially English blend that consumers the world over will choose it if they're looking for a black tea blend" reckons Caroline-Jane Houston, Director of Food and Beverage at The Langham Hotel in London. "Due to it's light, citrus and floral character Earl Grey makes the perfect afternoon tea". We can confirm that it makes the perfect partner for the scrumptious sandwiches, scones and elegant patisserie of the hotel's signature Bijoux Tea!

But as people experiment and discover more teas will the brew once described as 'the Liebfraumilch of the tea world' face relegation? Alex Probyn thinks it's position is safe, "Earl Grey is still considered a 'must-have' as anyone wanting something a bit special will think of this... sophisticated... blend first".

Who drinks it?

Fans of Earl Grey include science-obsessed chef Heston Blumenthal, Queen of the cosy interior Cath Kidston and Star Trek character Jean-Luc Picard, played by actor Patrick Stewart. Earl Grey also has it's very own page on Facebook - but don't let that put you off...

What does the perfect cup taste like?

Alex Probyn advises, "As a taster and blender, there are several things that are important. Firstly, the base tea needs to be good quality - gone are the days of being able to hide poor or old teas by piling on bergamot - consumers are becoming more discerning". And as with all teas you should look at the clarity of the liquor, the freshness of the brew's aroma and flavour and the mouthfeel of the drink. Earl Grey should be a bright, invigoratingly citrus-scented and smooth brew. In other words it's utterly delicious!

Now you know all about the nation's favourite scented tea, isn't it time you put the kettle on?

Image credits:
Portrait of Earl Grey:
Earl Grey loose tea:

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