Earl Grey: The Aristocrat of the Tea World
Earl Grey is one of England’s most famous and popular teas. It was originally created to imitate expensive and exotic Chinese teas such as Oolong, by adding bergamot oil added to black tea. But over the centuries it has been developed as a fine tea in its own right and is associated with ‘posh’ aristocratic culture in the UK, though it is popular enough to be served in most cafes and eateries.
Earl Grey is reputedly named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey and has been drunk in the UK since the 1830s. Various conflicting stories abound, but it is believed to have been presented to the Earl as a diplomatic gift. Some stories state that it was from a grateful Chinese mandarin, whose son was rescued from drowning by Grey’s men, but this is unlikely given the Earl never set foot in China and the Chinese didn’t use bergamot to flavour tea. It is likely that an envoy returning from China, blended the tea in an effort to imitate exotic Chinese teas.
The distinct flavour in Earl Grey Tea comes from the addition of bergamot orange. Originally, bergamot oil was used, but many modern varieties include citrus peel and other botanical flavours. The bergamot is reputed to have been added to suit the water at Howick Hall, the Grey’s family seat in Northumberland, to offset the preponderance of lime. While it was clearly named after an aristocrat, Earl Grey Tea does have a greyish tint to it, especially when milk is added, compared to English Breakfast Tea which is a rich, reddish brown in complexion.
Although the Twinings brand are most famous for selling Earl Grey Tea, it is not a trademarked term and many excellent varieties exist. Lady Grey, named after the Earl’s wife, is a popular variant, often using other ingredients such as bright blue cornflowers and Seville oranges. Both teas are usually brewed in a teapot and served in a cup and saucer on a tea tray. Either lemon or milk are added for taste and sometimes honey is used to sweeten rather than sugar due to it complementing the citrus.
Earl Grey Tea is popular among those who take traditional Afternoon Tea or Cream Tea in the UK. While Cream Tea involves a side of scones, jam and clotted cream with the drink, Afternoon Tea includes additional cakes and finger sandwiches with traditional fillings such as cucumber. Both traditions are fairly rare in British households, where tea and biscuits (cookies) are more likely to be on offer, but Afternoon Tea remains popular as a treat in traditional cafes and eateries, particularly in areas of English Heritage.
Our Favourite Aristocratic Teas
Earl Grey: The classic version, Ceylon black tea flavoured with bergamot oil and enhanced with a light dose of blue cornflowers.
Duchess Earl Grey: Black tea blended with bergamot oil, citrus pieces, blue cornflowers, rose petals and lime leaves. This is a delightfully decadent variant on Earl Grey, with added citrus and botanicals to enhance the flavour.
French Lavender Earl Grey: Black Ceylon tea blended with bergamot oil and lightly scented with French Lavender. The lavender here adds an extra relaxing twist on the traditional drink, for a complementary evening brew. We’re sure Lady Grey would approve!