The Chinese Origins of Earl Grey Tea
Tea is the most commonly consumed beverage in the world, and in the western hemisphere, the majority of the tea enjoyed is black. Perhaps the most popular and recognizable variation is Earl Grey tea, a slightly smokey blend infused with the essence of bergamot orange rind, probably in an attempt to imitate the citrus-like notes of high-quality Chinese black teas.
There are an impressive bouquet of rumors surrounding the origins of Earl Grey tea, most of them apocryphal; one of the more dramatic of these claims that a Chinese mandarin blended the tea for the 2nd Earl Grey — adding the bergamot oil to compensate for a high proportion of lime in the local water of Northumberland — as a show of gratitude after the Earl saved the mandarin’s son from drowning. An astonishing tale, particularly because Charles Grey never traveled to China himself.
I suspect that the truth is slightly more mundane, yet still historically interesting. The 2nd Earl of Grey, Charles Grey, spent a short though politically important four years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, from 1830-1834. His administration is responsible for significant reform, including the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. His link to the world of tea came in 1834, shortly before retiring from public life, when he removed the trade monopoly with China held by the East India Company. The newly opened trade routes allowed tea clippers, a fast-traveling trade ship, to be entirely packed with this single product, drastically reducing the import cost and causing a surge in the popularity and consumption of tea in the United Kingdom. With this in mind, it seems likely that a Chinese ambassador presented Charles Grey with a gift of high-grade Chinese tea out of gratitude for the sudden profitability of the tea business. Using bergamot oil to scent and flavor tea was a technique unknown in China at this time, which reinforces the probability that this came later, when British tea manufacturers were attempting to recreate the taste of Earl Grey’s special tea.
I spoke with Zhuping about which variety of tea Charles Grey might have been given, as my sources both online and in textbooks were disparate on this note; popular guesses were Qimen or Lapsang. Zhuping quickly ruled out the former. Production of Qimen tea did not begin until 1875, when Yu Gancheng, founder of Qimen tea and once a Wu Yi Shan officer, brought the technology to produce this variety back to his hometown. Our guess is that Charles Grey was given Lapsang Bohea, a fine black tea scented with pine smoke.
Today, Earl Grey tea has been used to describe any black tea flavored with bergamot, regardless of quality. Variations include Lady Grey (flavored with bergamot and lavender) and Russian Earl Grey (flavored with bergamot and lemongrass).
Its distinctive flavor makes it the most popular tea for culinary uses. Whole leaves or bags of earl grey are used to infuse cakes, creams, sauces, jams, and even chocolates. While the flavors of other teas can be difficult to infuse strongly, the essential oils in earl grey help it to stand out strongly against other ingredients.
At Seven Cups, customers occasionally ask about Earl Grey tea. Because the teas we carry do not have added flavorings — flavor variations and nuance depend entirely on the type of tea bush or tree, the grade of leaves used, and the method by which it is processed — we usually recommend a Qimen (rich and strong with slight citrus notes) or our Tongmu Bohea (clean, sweet, and lightly smokey). Both of these teas are strong enough to stand up to the British tradition of milk and sugar… though you may be surprised by how wonderful they taste without any embellishment.
Next week: An Earl Grey-inspired doughnut recipe, using our own Qimen tea!