What Makes Earl Grey Tea Different from Other Black Teas?
If the ever-growing collection of tea paraphernalia on my desk is any indication, I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for my morning tea habit. Yep, I drink black tea, not coffee, every morning when I get into the office. (And because the coffee enthusiasts always seemed shocked by this: It's not that I don't love coffee. I do! I have it sometimes. I just suddenly become very aware of my quickening heart rate whenever I drink it. Not great for the ol' anxiety.) But as I've gotten more settled into my tea-drinking routine, a few habits have emerged: I drink it out of my Extra Crispy mug; I always drink it black—no cream or sugar or nut particle water here; and I always drink Earl Grey.
In the early days, before I knew anything about what I was actually drinking, all I knew is that Earl Grey tasted better than English Breakfast—the two black teas usually on offer at your typical brunch joint or coffee shop. English Breakfast is pleasant, and when it comes to a sweet little caffeine jolt, it certainly does the trick, but there's nothing particularly interesting about it. Earl Grey, however, offers a little something special. There's a bright and welcome bitterness to the flavor, a lot like a citrus rind. The scent is delicate and memorable at the same time. It's a lovely, gentler way to start the day. And it makes my heart flutter instead of race.
The citrus notes in Earl Grey tea come from a fruit called bergamot. To make Earl Grey tea, leaves from the camellia sinensis plant—a typical tea plant—are combined with bergamot oil, which is the essence extracted from the fruit's skin. Bergamot grows primarily in Calabria, Italy, but you can find it and other similar sour oranges in the south of France, Cote d'Ivoire, southern Turkey, and the southwest United States. About the size and shape of an orange, bergamot typically has the same yellow-green skin as a lemon. The fruit appears in marmalades, juices, and even Scandinavian smokeless tobacco.
The tea itself is thought to be named after Earl Charles Grey, who served as the British prime minister from 1830-1834. As one of the stories goes, the prime minister received black tea with bergamot oil as a gift from an envoy returning from China. But London tea house Jacksons of Picadilly claims the original Earl Grey recipe has never left their hands since receiving the recipe from the earl himself in 1830. Whatever the origin, the Earl Grey blend was never trademarked, allowing the black tea and bergamot combination to be interpreted and blended by tea makers the world over.
Also, according to a 2010 British survey, liking Earl Grey over other black teas apparently makes me posh. And to that I say: pinkies out.