The Histories: Earl Grey Tea

Earl Grey is an odd kind of beast. Most Americans would probably name it, if asked to talk about tea. It’s a standard black tea, usually made with Assam, and flavored with bergamot.

It’s actually not that easy to find a kind of food or drink that really embodies human history, and specifically the dominance of particular cultures in world history. Tea, green and then black, does.

First, let me explain one thing: green tea is made from the leaves of the tea plant, camellia sinensis, originally native to the Himalayas. Black tea is made from those same leaves, but after they’ve been left to dry. Black tea popped up sometime during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

Green tea is much older. The tradition is that green tea was first drunk by a Chinese emperor named Shen Nung (2737-2697 BCE). Unfortunately the historical record isn’t so clear. It can be said that the first definite reference to tea drunk for pleasure by the average person, not for medicine or by Buddhist monks, is from the first century BCE.

I don’t want to get into the history of green tea too much, because this is going to be a series of posts about the different kinds of tea and I don’t want to get ahead of myself. So I’m going to fast forward now through the influence that green tea had on Chinese history (master constable, you go not the way to examine) and we’ll end up around the time that Europe and the British decided to destroy the world under the disguise of ‘civilising’ it, and how they did it using black tea.

[Duralex glass of earl grey on marble table with window, hanging air plant, and bookshelf in background]
The Europeans did originally import green tea, but that was quickly overtaken by black tea, which the Chinese didn’t mind exporting to foreigners who probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway.

If you know any British colonial history, you’ll know that the British East India Company is front and center. The company was formed in 1600 to take advantage of the East Indian trade in spices. Despite competition with the Dutch and the Portuguese, they were given a monopoly on British imports from the East Indies, and then increasingly more and more power: “including the rights to acquire territory, issue currency, maintain an army, form alliances, declare war and make peace, and dispense justice.”¹ They did this partly by giving Charles II gifts of tea to please his wife, Catherine of Braganza, who introduced the drink to the English court. With these rights, the company became an unofficial for-profit arm of the British government, with no moral guidelines or responsibilities and total immunity. If there is one bad idea that tops the history of bad ideas, this could very well be it.

Skipping along again, because I’m trying to remember that this is still a post about Earl Grey: By the early 1800s (the nineteenth century) the East India Company was in a bit of trouble. Although they’d beaten their competition in the east, the Dutch and the Portuguese, and they had solid control of India (mismanaged as it was), they were struggling in China due to strict import laws. In 1834 the First Opium War broke out, after the company’s under-the-belt policy of trading opium for silver, and the silver for tea and other Chinese goods blew up – although not in the face of the company. This war, and subsequent ones, proved that despite China’s previous dominance of the world markets, their more recent policy of isolation due to their own self-sufficiency meant that the East India Company’s well-equipped modern armed forces had far outstripped those of the Chinese. The First and Second Opium wars are the beginning of the modern era of Chinese history, and a massive turning point in the history of the tea that sits in your kitchen cabinet.

The company had already been trying to find a way to get tea without going through China, and now they were trying in ernest. They discovered that the tea plant, camellia sinensis, was growing in a region in northeastern India known as Assam.

The company itself was abolished in 1858 after the Indian Mutiny, but the future of Assam was already secured. After a series of bungled efforts to start and maintain tea production there, it finally took hold around the beginning of the twentieth century.

The figures tell the story: Britain imported thirty-one thousand tons of tea from China in 1859, but by 1899 the total had fallen to seven thousand tons, while imports from India had risen to nearly one hundred thousand tons.

A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage

Today, Assam still produces most of the world’s black tea, including almost all Earl Grey blends. Nobody really knows who first blended black tea and bergamot, but there are several colourful stories revolving around the titular Earl Grey, Charles Grey, the second by that name. He’s actually quite a fascinating character on his own. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1830-1834, and it was his government that abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833, passed the Factory Act of 1833, the first of its kind reforming child labor laws, and the Government of India Act of 1833, which divested the East India Company of all of its commercial operations, making it administrative only. And, okay … he was played by Dominic Cooper in the film version of Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire.

Portrait of Charles Grey by Henry Bone. I don’t think he looks anything like Dominic Cooper.

The myths about the tea include his wife, Lady Grey, aka Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby. (Over twenty-three years this couple had sixteen children. Most of them even survived.) There are some blends called “Lady Grey,” although I say blends, plural, because not a one of them is the same as the others. Anyway, however the Earl came to be in possession of this tea blend, it was his wife who loved it so much that she served it to all her visitors and eventually requested that one of the major London tea proprietors make it up for her consistently.

So, how did Charles Grey “discover” black tea and bergamot? One myth says that he saved the life of a Chinese man and was given the tea as a thank-you gift. Another says that the tea was blended specifically to offset the taste of lime in the water on the Earl’s estate, Howick Hall. We can hope that this is referring to lime the fruit and not lime the building material. Nobody can agree on the origin story, and nobody can agree which London teahouse first began to sell the blend commercially.  The only thing that can be said without a doubt about Earl Grey tea is that its history is completely ambiguous, and its popularity is without an end in sight.

[Four white mugs with tea of varying red-amber colour on a copper tray, sitting on my mother’s whacky ’80’s tablecloth. Edit: after this post published my mother emailed me to explain that her tablecloth was from the ’90’s. So, noted.] I realise now I should have labeled the teas … oh well.
So finally we’ve come to the real reason I run this blog: taste-testing the deliciousness of our earl grey teas. It was a bit of a rush job this time, so we only had four teas and three people, but at the very least that means this post won’t go on for the eternity the honey one did. We also pared down our tasting notes, leaving just three categories on which these were judged: aroma, taste, and texture, or body. And I should probably remind you all that none of us are experts and this is just for fun.

[Small Duralex glass cup of earl grey next to box of Paromi Tea. Both are sitting on my green sewing desk with silver ice-bucket planter in background]
Number 1: Paromi Tea‘s Earl Grey. I’d never heard of Paromi until I started researching this post, but their Earl Grey is an excellent example of the blend. It’s light and floral, without the heavy bitterness of most black teas. If that’s what you’re after, go for it. Rated the first of our four teas for easy drinking.

Ingredients: Black tea, mallow blossom, marigold blossom, natural bergamot essence.

  • Aroma
    • Person #1: Light and floral, slightly cedar
    • #2: Most complex perfume, bergamot’s blended with floral smell
    • #3: Spice, faint perfume
  • Taste
    • #1: Clove or cardamom? Slight bitterness, perfumed, but the tea still coming through
    • #2: pure tea taste, like it came off a leaf. Hard to find bergamot within the taste. Needs sugar.
    • #3: Soap, chemical, pithy and lemon. Lemon peel. Bitter.
  • Texture
    • #1: Light, chalky
    • #2:
    • #3: Light.

[The teabag I used for tasting was my last, so sadly I don’t have a photo of Lord Bergamot.]

Number 2: Steven Smith‘s Lord Bergamot. I’ve been a fan of Steven Smith’s for about two years now, and even had the pleasure of visiting their tasting room in Portland. They do some really incredible things with tea, and we’ll be seeing more of them soon. I wanted to include Lord Bergamot because it’s a lovely tea and a fantastic example of this combination of flavours. However, this isn’t really an Earl Grey, nor does the team at Steven Smith consider it to be. It is flavoured with bergamot, yes, but the bergamot in this tea is here as a complimentary ingredient, and not as a star player. Normally that would make this a sophisticated alternative to a tea that can admittedly sometimes taste like dirty dishwater, but in a blind tasting against Earl Greys, it’s in an odd spot. This one was rated 2/4 for that reason, but I’d probably consider it more of an outlier than in the ranking.

Ingredients: Ceylon Dimbulla, Uva (Sri Lanka) and Indian Assam teas full leaf teas and natural bergamot flavour.

  • Aroma
    • #1: Floral, pale nutty
    • #2: No smell
    • #3: Hops? Brewed beer, honey, spelt
  • Taste
    • #1: Slightly bitter, woody
    • #2: Bergamot, light perfume but classic tea taste with smokiness. Not earl grey, but great taste.
    • #3: Spice, numbing? Barley, honey. Unpleasant, coating aftertaste. Rye?
  • Texture
    • #1: Chalky feel, chewy
    • #2: Lovely aftertaste
    • #3: Sticky at the end. Numbing feeling. Coats mouth and teeth. Slick.

[Windowsill with small white lantern, bulbous glass succulent planter, duralex glass of earl grey, packet of Red Rose tea, and one of my boyfriend’s mother’s housewarming power crystals]
Number 3: Red Rose Earl Grey – If you want a really authentic 18th century tasting tea, this might be your best bet. The cheaper the tea, the more it might actually reflect early tea importing practices, which were notorious for getting the most tea flavour out of the smallest amount of actual tea. We rated this 4/4.

Ingredients: Premium black tea blended with natural bergamot flavours.

  • Aroma
    • #1: Vegetal, floral, citrus zest.
    • #2: Much stronger earl grey perfume – spicy.
    • #3: Soap? Flowery perfume.
  • Taste
    • #1: Fennel, grassy, overwhelming perfume. Bit sweet, but more like liquorice sweet than sugar.
    • #2: Wet leaf taste, tart aftertaste. Most pure earl grey flavor.
    • #3: Grass, pepper. Soapy, chemical like, very vegetal.
  • Texture
    • #1: Not much of, sticky after, fennel aftertaste. Bleh.
    • #2: Sharp.
    • #3: Light, not syrupy

[On wood table, a Duralex glass of earl grey in foreground, Twinings box (potentially the oldest commercial logo in continuous use) in background, and black lamp base on left side sitting on lace doily]
Number 4: Twinings Earl Grey. Twinings is considered the oldest exclusive tea shop in London. It’s the standard Earl Grey, especially in the United States. In Britain, they might have other ideas. We rated it 3/4, mostly for the artificial taste of the bergamot – it should be noted that the reason for using synthetic citrus flavours is for the benefit of people with a citrus allergy.

Ingredients: Black tea, natural citrus flavours with other natural flavours.

  • Aroma
    • #1: Just bergamot, flowery.
    • #2: Medium earl grey perfume.
    • #3: Soapy + perfume. Floral, unpleasant, chemical.
  • Taste
    • #1: Just bergamot
    • #2: Lighter body/taste.
    • #3: Weak. Dandelion. Soap.
  • Texture
    • #1: Flat, no layers to the flavours, and watery aftertaste.
    • #2: You could say ‘refined’ or you could say sawdusty – don’t know if I like sawdust. Tart – would be helped by sugar.
    • #3: Coats mouth, numbing feeling.


Further Reading:

¹A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage. A good overview.

The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J Heiss.

The Tea Enthusiast’s Guide: A Handbook, also by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J Heiss.

A Social History of Tea, by Jane Pettigrew.

For more information on the East India Trading Company, I would actually suggest the wikipedia page. It’s a well annotated and fairly complete history – with the inevitable caveat that wikipedia is meant for casual interest and is not a reliable source, especially for academics.

As for drinking tea, the Steven Smith website has an excellent guide and a video up on youtube. There are also plenty of articles online with the best places to drink tea around the world.

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