The History of Earl Grey Tea
Wherever you are in the world, you’ll find tea – from ancient Chinese black teas to modern herbal blends, it sometimes feels as though there are as many tea varieties as there are tea drinkers!
But there are few places in which tea plays a more pivotal role than in England. It is, let’s be honest, one of the first things people learn about us! And whilst we love our builders’ tea, and our breakfast tea, and just about anything else we can get our hands on, there’s nothing quite so quintessentially English as a nice cup of Earl Grey.
Which is why, as a company passionate about tea and tea-drinking cultures, it was only right that our journey start on our own doorstep, with our Tale of Earl Grey.
What is Earl Grey Tea?
Whilst everyone has their own favourite brand of Earl Grey tea, the one they think tastes ‘just right’, technically ‘Earl Grey’ is the generic name given to any tea flavoured using bergamot oil. Traditionally made using Chinese black tea, over the years bergamot oil has been added to everything from green tea and oolong to roiboos, resulting in a range of Earl Greys to suit every palette.
What is Bergamot Oil?
Citrus bergamia, commonly known as the Bergamot Orange, is a citrus fruit. Often described as being somewhere between a sweet lime and a bitter orange, genetic testing shows it’s probably a hybrid of lemon and bitter orange.
Traditionally grown in Calabria in Southern Italy, bergamot oranges are rarely grown for their juice – whilst they do make great marmalade, the majority are used to create bergamot oil, an essential oil found in the fruit’s rind.
Similar to an orange oil, but with a more floral top note, bergamot oil is used in everything from aromatherapy and perfumes (including the original Eau de Cologne, the one that was actually from Cologne itself!) to cooking – with its most famous role surely being as the crucial element that gives Earl Grey tea its uniquely floral flavour.
Who was Earl Grey, and why is the tea named after him?
Earl Grey tea is named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, and UK Prime Minister from November 1830 to July 1834. Whilst nowadays best known for his tea namesake, as Prime Minister he was a long-time leader of multiple reform movements, most famously the 1832 Reform Act. He also oversaw the British Empire’s abolition of slavery, with 1833 seeing his government purchase slaves from their owners.
Exactly why Earl Grey tea is named after the 2nd Earl Grey is open to speculation! Stories include:
- One of the Earl’s men saved the son of a Chinese mandarin from drowning, and was gifted the recipe as a sign of his father’s gratitude.
- It was an attempt to recreate the naturally-floral taste of the high-quality teas gifted to Earl Grey as a thank you for his having removed the Chinese trade monopoly held by the East India Company (at the time bergamot was often used to add the citrus notes often lacking from poorer-quality teas).
- A Chinese tea master created a blend specifically for Earl Grey, using bergamot to balance out the strong flavour of lime (a calcium-containing mineral) in the well water at Howick Hall, the Earl’s estate near Newcastle.
- It was an accident of fortune resulting from black tea and bergamot oranges being transported together from China, during which voyage the tea naturally absorbed the aromas of the nearby fruit.
Whatever the truth, bergamot-enhanced tea has been sold under the Earl Grey name for at least
What does Earl Grey tea taste like?
Any tea can be combined with bergamot oil to make Earl Grey, so beyond the aromatic citrus notes, there’s no such thing as a specific Earl Grey flavour. Traditionally though, Earl Grey is made using good quality black tea, combining its full-bodied, malty strength with the floral, bitter and slightly sweet flavour of the bergamot.
How is Earl Grey tea produced?
Traditionally, Earl Grey is made using black tea and bergamot oil, 90% of which comes from Southern Italy. The tea leaves, once picked and withered, are then oxidized. Sometime during, or immediately after this process, the essential oil is added, imbuing the leaves with the complex bergamot aromas.
Today, a lot of Earl Grey is made using artificial bergamot flavour – whilst less nuanced, this approach does have the advantage of producing an easily replicable end product that delivers exactly the taste customers are expecting.
Having said that, NOVELTEA’s Tale of Earl Grey uses only genuine bergamot oil – after all, we believe if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly!
How to brew the perfect cup of Earl Grey
Earl Grey’s complex flavour deserves a little effort be put into its steeping. True aficionados will use filtered water and a non-reactive kettle, ensuring that you’re tasting nothing but the tea itself. But even if you’re just using cold water from the tap and a regular kitchen kettle, remember to:
- Use water that is just below its boiling temperature. If necessary, let your just-boiled water cool slightly for a minute or two before beginning your steep.
- Always warm your teapot or mug by rinsing it with hot water before adding fresh water and your teabag / loose leaf tea.
- Let your tea steep for 3 – 5 minutes. People will argue passionately about the perfect steeping time, so why not experiment and work out exactly how long is needed for your perfect cuppa.
Purists will often insist that any tea be drunk without embellishment to truly appreciate its flavour, but everyone else agrees that the best way is however you like it most! Earl Grey works fantastically with a little sugar, some lemon juice, honey, and even milk. It’s the perfect opportunity to try them all and see which you prefer!
NOVELTEA’s Tale of Earl Grey
As with all of our alcoholic tea blends, the Tale of Earl Grey was created to take you on a journey – but every journey must start somewhere, and we wanted ours to start somewhere quintessentially British!
With its ties to Newcastle, the home of both NOVELTEA and the Earl himself (Howick Hall is 30 miles north of the city), The Tale of Earl Grey perfectly pairs cold-brewed Earl Grey tea with a specially-selected British Gin.
The tea’s Sicilian bergamot oil works in conjunction with the gin, their similarly bitter tones cut through by the bergamot’s floral, citrus accent. The result is an entirely new flavour experience – a clear amber tone with pleasant aromas of black tea, bergamot oil and honey, with a rich, smooth gin finish.