Earl Grey tea is a very popular and delicious scented black tea. The English tea company Twinings is usually credited with the first Earl Grey tea. It is a blend of black teas, usually both Indian, Chinese, and Ceylon, to which bergamot oil is added. Due to the strong flavor of the bergamot, which tastes like the tea smells, Earl Grey should just as well be called a flavored tea rather then just a scented tea. It is probably the most popular tea in Europe, and it has an ever-growing fan base in the U.S. While there are ever-growing and bewildering varieties of teas available on our supermarket shelves, you can’t go wrong with a good Earl Grey, if you can get the real thing.
Who Was Earl Grey?
To start, the tea was not named after an “Earl of Grey.” Grey is not a place, as would usually be expected. Instead, it was named after the second Earl Grey. The first Earl Grey was Charles Grey who was a famous general for the British during the American Revolution. In thanks for his service to the Empire, King George III named him an earl. His son, Charles Grey II, inherited this title. The Second Earl Grey was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1830 to 1834. It is claimed that while he was prime minister, a Chinese mandarin sent him some scented tea. The Earl loved the tea, and when he ran out of it, he asked Twinings to replicate it for him. The tea, reportedly, was flavored with bergamot.
Some people discounted this tale, saying that it makes no sense because bergamot is native to Italy instead of China. However, this is erroneous. While bergamot is extensively cultivated in Calabria, Italy, it is actually native to Asia. Although the Chinese are not today known for using bergamot in tea it is possible that such a tea may have existed in the Second Earl Grey’s time. Whether the story is true or not, however, is unknown, and given British and Chinese relations at the time, such a gift does not seem very likely.
It is sometimes maintained that the original recipe for Earl Grey tea did not use bergamot but Sichuan tangerines.
What is Bergamot?
Bergamot, (Citrus bergamia Risso, C. aurantium L.) is a small citrus tree of the family Rutaceae which flowers twice a year and produces a small orange-like fruit. It is a dwarf variety of the Seville orange. From the peal of this fruit, begamot oil is extracted. This bergamot oil is used extensively to impart a citrus flavor, but it’s scent and flavor is unique to itself. Its most well-known use is in Earl Grey tea. Some producers of Earl Grey may use artificial bergamot flavor.
Oil of bergamot is also used in cosmetics and, during the 18th and 19th centuries, was a popular flavoring in snuff and gin.
How Is Earl Grey Tea Made?
Each company that makes Earl Grey tea will have its own blend of teas and formula, but the basic process involves a blend of black teas which are blended in a drum with bergamot oil extract. Since there are not actual pieces of fruit, rind, or flowers present in the tea blend, it is called a scented, rather than a flavored tea, but this distinction is probably not important since Earl Grey, when real bergamot is used, has a strong bergamot presence. The flavor of natural bergamot is more subtle than that of synthetic bergamot, but is more identifiable and defined.
Today there are many offshoots and varieties of Earl Grey tea. Do not drink Earl Grey tea if you have a known citrus allergy, unless you can be sure synthetic bergamot is used. Do not assume that all Earl Grey tea tastes the same. The specific blend of teas and the concentration of the bergamot oil used will make all the difference