What is Earl Grey & Why is it so Popular?

What is Earl Grey & Why is it so Popular?
by Liz Duffy, Certified Tea Sommelier

We’re glad you asked. Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world after water, and Earl Grey is one of the most popular teas in the West. Earl Grey is a black tea, usually an orthodox blend. What makes Earl Grey different from other black teas is the infusion of oil from the rind of bergamot, a citrus fruit grown mostly in Italy and France. Earl Grey’s exotic fragrance provides built-in aromatherapy to your cup. The distinctive flavour also makes it a favourite culinary choice in everything from cookies and scones to creams and chocolate. It pairs perfectly with sweet or savoury flavours.

Beyond the exotic aroma, there’s intrigue and mystery surrounding the tea’s origin. One of the most dramatic claims is that a Chinese mandarin developed this tea blend as a gift for The Second Earl of Grey – Charles Grey – after the mandarin’s son was saved from drowning. But the fact that Earl Grey himself never traveled to China makes that story somewhat unlikely. Another version suggests a Chinese friend added bergamot oil to compensate for the high levels of lime in the Earl’s Northumberland water. Others say it was a blend developed in Britain to recreate a special Chinese tea the Earl had been given. Yet another story attributes the origin to happenstance – the accidental outcome of a gift of tea and bergamot oranges being shipped together to the Earl, resulting in the tea absorbing the citrus flavour.

We do know that Charles Grey was the Prime Minister of England for four years, from 1830-1834. During his administration, notable reforms were achieved, including the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In 1834, he ended the tea trade monopoly with China held by the East India Company. This resulted in open trade routes and lower import costs, significantly increasing the consumption of tea in Britain. The naming of Earl Grey tea could simply have been a gesture to an important political leader, one who had a direct influence on the British love of tea.

Variations include Creme Earl Grey (bergamot and lavender) and London Fog  (bergamot and vanilla bean). At Lemon Lily, our nod to the Second Earl of Grey comes in the form of Earl Grey Darjeeling, combining black tea from the Darjeeling region of India with natural bergamot.

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