Earl Grey tea leaves and brewed tea

Mmmm, Earl Grey tea – one of my favorite tea blends, especially with a dash of cream. And I’m not the only one who loves it – it’s one of the most popular teas in the Western world, but have you ever wondered what makes Earl Grey so special? Well, grab your cup of tea and join me as we explore…

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot.”

– Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek

What is Earl Grey tea?

Earl Grey tea is a blend of black tea and bergamot oil. It starts with a base of brisk black teas, often from Aasam or Ceylon, which provide a bold and full-flavored backbone to the tea. The tea leaves are infused with bergamot oil, which has a pleasantly bitter citrus and herbal flavor. The resulting blend is rich and bold, accented with herbal, flowery, and citrus notes from the bergamot.

It’s worth mentioning that most Earl Grey tea on the market is made with artificial flavor, rather than real bergamot oil. If you want to taste the real deal, be sure to read the ingredient list on your box of tea!

What is bergamot?

Bergamot, the signature flavor of Earl Grea tea, comes from a citrus fruit, the bergamot orange, commonly grown in southern Italy. It is about the size of a small orange or large lemon, with green skin when it’s still young, maturing to yellow-orange when ripe. You might have seen photos showing a bright green and bumpy-skinned citrus claiming to be bergamot orange. But, no, that’s actually a makrut lime. It’s commonly mistaken for bergamot but they’re not the same fruit. 

Bergamot has a sharp, citrusy tang with a hint of bitterness. To my palate, it is reminiscent of orange zest, but a bit moodier and more complex — just right for accenting the robust character of a bold black tea blend. Yumm!

The history of Earl Grey tea

The legend goes that Earl Grey tea is named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, who was the British Prime Minister from 1830-1834. But how did he get a tea named after him? Well… that’s where it gets a bit hazy… with stories of daring deeds and Chinese noblemen, or clever ways to neutralize mineral flavors in the water at the Grey estate, or even just a bit of creative tea blending by the good Earl. All the stories are somewhat questionable, but they do add to the intrigue!

Legends aside, it seems bergamot oil has been added to tea for centuries to improve the flavor of low-quality tea leaves. Eventually, thanks in part to influence from traditional Chinese tea blending traditions, higher quality versions of bergamot-scented tea were developed. It is likely that our famous Earl, Charles Grey, had his name attached to the tea to help popularize the tasty blend and give it an air of refinement.

From those early beginnings, Earl Grey tea took off in popularity, beginning with the British and spreading to the Western world. Today, Earl Grey’s unique citrusy and aromatic characteristics make it a favorite of both traditional and flavored tea drinkers. 

How to prepare Earl Grey tea

A good cup of Earl Grey starts with good tea leaves. I recommend purchasing quality loose leaf tea from a premium producer. If you prefer tea bags or sachets, look for better brands that fill their tea bags with whole leaf tea, not tea dust or fannings (tea leaves that have been broken down to a fine powder). Be sure to read the ingredient list – many brands are flavored with artificial ingredients. Look for teas that use real bergamot oil. 

Earl Grey tea should be prepared like any black tea. Hop over to my Tea Brewing Guide to get all the tasty details. Or if you prefer a quick guide… to brew a full-flavored cup of loose leaf Earl Grey, use about 4 grams of tea leaves (about 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons) for every 8 ounces of water. Steep with freshly boiled water at 212°F (100°C) for about 4 minutes. 

Tea bags tend to be a little wimpy in my opinion, even good quality tea bags, often containing just a couple of grams of tea leaves. I recommend using less water – about 6 ounces – for every tea bag, steeped with freshly boiled water for about 4 minutes.

Happy brewing!

4 grams of gunpowder green tea

A Beginner’s Guide To Brewing Loose Leaf Tea

In this guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of Western-style tea brewing – a style that’s both approachable for beginners and offers plenty of breadth for the most discerning tea enthusiasts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Earl Grey tea and English Breakfast tea?

Both Earl Grey and English Breakfast are black tea blends, often made with bold teas from Assam or Ceylon. But Earl Grey has the additional flavor of bergamot oil – an essential oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange. 

What is the difference between Earl Grey and Lady Grey tea?

Earl Grey and Lady Grey are both black tea blends flavored with bergamot oil. The difference is that Lady Grey is infused with additional citrus flavors such as lemon and orange. 

Can Earl Grey be made with green tea?

You bet! While Earl Grey tea traditionally uses a black tea base, its green tea cousin is nothing to overlook! Some brands, like my favorite blend pictured below, are made with other teas like oolong or white tea. Whatever style of Earl Grey you try, search for high-quality brands that use real bergamot oil to infuse the tea leaves. 

Earl Grey Supreme tea leaves
My current favorite blend is Earl Grey Supreme, a blend of black, oolong, and white tea infused with bergamot oil.

Is Earl Grey a good choice for afternoon tea?

Absolutely! Earl Grey tea is a classic British blend, perfect for serving during the classic British traditions of afternoon tea, cream tea, or high tea.

British-style scones with jam and clotted cream

How to Put Together a British-Style Cream Tea

Cream tea is simply tea served with scones, jam, and clotted cream. It is a quintessentially British tradition and is a delightful and indulgent treat that is perfect for any occasion. Read on to learn more about it and how to make it!

Should Earl Grey be served black, or with lemon, sugar, or cream?

While its zesty flavor can be enjoyed black, a lot of folks enjoy Earl Grey with a squeeze of lemon which highlights the tangy notes of bergamot. If you prefer a sweeter brew, a spoonful of sugar or a drizzle of honey can balance the citrus flavors. I enjoy it with a splash of cream. But, like all things tea – it is up to you! 

How should Earl Grey be stored?

Storing Earl Grey tea properly is key to maintaining its flavor and shelf-life. Tea doesn’t like exposure to sunlight, moisture, warmth, or strong smells – these can really mess with tea’s taste and aroma. So, keep it in a cool, dry place away from any strong-smelling foods, herbs, or spices. And remember, Earl Grey has a strong citrus aroma itself, so keeping it in an airtight container is a good idea to prevent other teas from picking up this citrus note unintentionally!  

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