Earl Grey… Ah, the myths, the marketing, the lofty names and the mystery. The mystery is that there is no way to tell from the name and packaging what it is that you are actually getting.
Here are two pairs of images to show the range of Earl Greys. The first is the bergamot fruit that is the hallmark of this tea. To its side is – honest – a flavor enhancer from a leading Chinese lab. You can buy it in a jerry can as shown, in units of 25 or 50 kilograms. The third shows a whole leaf Earl Grey, with bergamot peel, and next to it the typical tea bag content.
The dust will be tea plus some essence (that may actually be artificial – natural just means “found in nature” — and maybe ground pomegranate. The flavoring may be in liquid form and sprayed on in the last stage of production to coat the tea fragments.
It takes 200 kilograms of fruit from Calabria, Sicily, to make one kilo of the real and rare bergamot essence. This is definitely classier than the jerry can of aromatized concentrated Earl Grey flavoring, with ingredients of natural flavoring, propylene glycol and ethyl alcohol. (The promo material boasts that “This flavor is true to the tea!” That may well be accurate, alas.)
If you like Earl Grey tea and are happy with the one you regularly drink, you may feel no reason to switch. It’s familiar, has the English heritage name and is inexpensive. Some questions, though:
- What’s different and special about it compared to other Earl Greys?
- How do you know if it’s a good deal or a ripoff?
- Do you know what other ones you might prefer?
You may have firm answers or not be concerned about the questions. Regardless, here’s a last one that you will almost certainly get wrong:
What exactly is Earl Grey?
There is no such tea. It’s a style of drink. That style has many elements: brand name and recognition, taste, convenience, cost, freshness, packaging and presentation. All of these vary very widely.
Farmers don’t grow Earl Grey. Sellers make it from what producers harvest plus what they then blend in with it. What they make it from and how it’s made matters more than the name.
At its best, it’s a medium-bodied black tea blend, a little lighter than English Breakfast: bright and refreshing rather than filling. Its distinctive characteristic is the balance between the tea and the aromatic fresh and natural bergamot and occasional additional floral or fruit flavorings that infuse it. These add a lingering sweetness to the first “hit” of the astringent tea – sharp but not bitter. It won’t have the “in your face” jolt that is a common criticism of black teas in a bag. Nor will it taste synthetic and “chemical” because of the artificial flavorings.
This subtle balance demands whole leaf ingredients and won’t be found in a standard tea bag. Their ingredients have to be homogenized and are composed of small fragments of a leaf and extra stuff that release their flavor quickly. They are cheap and must get cheaper to be cost-competitive in a global market where differentiation is very difficult; Amazon lists over 14,000 Earl Greys.
“A blend of black teas” means it comes from multiple countries. The low end teas are as likely as not to be processed and blended in Dubai, the world center for re-exporting teas shipped in bulk from Asia and Africa, or in Poland, where the leading “English” Earl Grey brand has shifted its main operations.
None of this is English. There is, though, Russian and French Earl Grey. The packaging may add an association of noble heritage: “Buckingham Palace,” “Persian Choice Royal Earl Gray” and “Tudor”, for instance. The many tins of “premium” custom brands carrying names of luxury stores or popular period TV series, are generally just contract packaging of bulk tea by highly efficient blenders. You yourself can brand your own Earl Grey: customized tins of superb quality cost under $1, Alibaba.com offers a menu of ingredient options, and there’s always that jerrycan of “bergamot” flavorings. The names are meaningless.
There are also green and white Earl Greys. These don’t stand up well to bergamot and many use cornflowers, vanilla, chocolate, and lavender to add a softer flavoring.
Top quality Earl Grey amounts to maybe five percent of the market. Some of the worst ones lurking on supermarket shelves and served in restaurants are chemical rather than agricultural, signaled by “soy lecithin” on the ingredients list. This emulsifier smooths the mixture of tea and added fruit filler bits from the many countries. It’s safe, but “added soy bean waste product” doesn’t quite fit the Noble Lord image.)
Most of the other Earl Greys are bland rather than bad. Here are typical reviews: “finding a new favorite or making an unfortunate mistake is largely up to chance,” “dull and tame,” “an undesirable lingering taste,” and “more often than not, artificial bergamot oil will give you something almost, but not entirely, unlike tea.”
Unlike tea… and that’s from someone who really likes Earl Grey. And, from one who doesn’t: “The whole point of these flavored teas is to taste of anything but tea. Earl Grey, the fatally popular progenitor of this dismal freak show…”
This doesn’t mean that Earl Greys are inherently awful, just that if a packager has dirt cheap (and dirt looking) tea dust, the best way to move it is to call it an Earl Grey.
Once upon a time… The legend of Viscount Grey
When a brand focuses on the legend and heritage, the more sure you can be that the tea is at best mediocre. Basically, the underlying message is that there’s nothing special here, so we’ll make it sound special. That means invoking the famous Earl.
The official story line is that Charles Grey, the second Earl and Prime Minister of Britain from 1830-34, was personally responsible for the tea. The main claim is that he received it as a gift from China, which the Earl had just returned from (he never went there.) He persuaded her Royal Majesty to make his brew her drink of choice. (Victoria, who was much more fun than her reputation, was probably already at the single malt).
You don’t like that story? Well, the Earl rescued from drowning the son of a tea trader who thanked him by giving him his secret recipe. Or he was shipping cargos of black tea from China in the same ship as bergamot (which comes from Sicily and was never grown or even used in China) and spotted how the tea absorbed the scent, or…
The Oxford English Dictionary is the definitive source of historical information on words. It has for a century drawn on volunteers who trace the specific use of a term to provide citations and sources. In 2013, it requested its community to track the origins of the name, Earl Grey. The conclusive evidence is that the name is not found anywhere until 1928, with mention of a generic Earl Grey “mixture” in 1867. Both references come from Jackson’s of Picadilly, still a strong tea brand, with claims of its selling the tea since 1836.
Choosing an Earl Grey
Here are short suggestions about staying with the Earl Grey you drink or choosing a new one:
- What’s special about it?
Look at the ingredients and ignore the name. If it’s a blend of anonymous teas from unknown countries, with a flavoring that is “essence” of anything, you can do much better.
If it contains soy lecithin, any mention of non-bergamot artificial flavorings, or is made of “Earl Grey tea”, “black tea” and “fine tea”, you couldn’t do much worse.
- Is it a good deal or a ripoff?
Ripoff: A fancy tin that boasts a royal/aristocratic heritage. Puffery about the Earl or anything like “This pungent Earl Grey blend has been transformed into pure royalty.” (Like the frog turning into a prince?) or “We think the aromatic result would have curled the Earl’s stiff upper lip into a smile.” (Or a grimace.)
Any price above 40 cents for a teabag. No Earl Grey is worth that much.
Good deal; Whole leaf that includes a superior base tea like Darjeeling, Ceylon, China black, with fresh, natural and harvested bergamot from Calabria, Sicily.
- Is there a choice of Earl Greys?
All online sellers of first rate whole leaf teas offer a superior in-house blend of their own. Look for an interesting blend that shows something different – choice of floral, fruit and aromatic flavorings between citrus, details of a good grade of elite regional leaf as the base. Buy direct.
Expect to pay around 40 cents a bag, $4-5 an ounce.
Forget the name. Earl Grey was innocent. Pay for good ingredients.