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  • Kate Malone Hesser

Making up with Earl Grey

I have been in an on-again off-again relationship with Earl Grey for the last 10 years or more. There was a time when it was the only tea I drank. I loved it in all forms, sought out lots of different varieties, and drank it at all times of day.

Then one day I took a sip and it tasted like soap and for two years the very smell of bergamot would be very unpleasant. This was incredibly disappointing, especially because I was not sure why it was happening.

I spent some time thinking about what changed and what I may have been doing wrong while preparing it. As a rule, I added milk. While I’ve learned that this was fine with certain blends that use a Ceylon as a base, that can stand up to the milk even with the bergamot flavoring, as I made my way to higher quality and more classically blended versions, the milk drowned out the flavor of the tea and what I got was a perfumy milk and citrus flavor.

Typically, the blend is made of a fine Chinese black tea, usually a Keemun, that has been flavored with either oil of bergamot, bergamot peel, or a bergamot flavoring. The jammy Keemun and the citrus of the bergamot can be balanced so perfectly that they become one new flavor - not leaving any room for milk.

While there are several legends about the origin of the Earl Gray blend and its namesake, most if not all have been debunked. What’s most likely is that lower grade or perhaps old, damaged, or stale tea was combined with bergamot to create a new, enhanced, and salvaged product.

Today you can find Earl Grey varieties with many different ingredients. Sometimes you will find it blended with cornflowers, Silver Needle white tea, lavender, vanilla, with double bergamot or even with a base of green or oolong tea.

This week I did a cupping using three blends that I had on hand to help me get to the bottom of my EG issues:

  • Tea Runners Majestic Earl Grey: Described as “This elegant and classic Earl Grey has been the top place finisher in the Earl Grey black category numerous times at the Global Tea Championship Awards. Made from the highest quality Yunnan black tea and cold-pressed bergamot oil from Italy, this Earl Grey is one of the finest in the world. Best enjoyed in its natural state without the addition of milk or sugar.” Ingredients: Black tea, bergamot oil, and blue cornflowers

  • Tea Runners Earl Grey Creme: “a creation of the master tea blenders at the most awarded tea company in North America. It is a stronger Earl Grey with a thick, creamy mouth-feel and lingering aftertaste of vanilla that’ll be sure to please any Earl Grey lover.” Ingredients: black tea, blue cornflower, natural flavoring

  • Twinings Earl Grey tea bag: black tea, natural flavoring, bergamot pee

I brewed all three simultaneously for four minutes in boiling water. Once I got into the cupping I found that these three versions of EG are very different. The Majestic version had a good balance of the Chinese black tea and bergamot flavors. One did not overpower the other and together they formed a new and distinct aroma. The citrus of the bergamot was sweet - almost like lemon drop candies.

The creme variety reminded me of what I think of as Parisian teas - sweet dark syrup, floral perfume, concord grape, and vanilla bean. All of these flavors, though delicious, masked the citrus of the bergamot, so it felt like a very different tea to me.

The Twinings tea bag, unsurprisingly, produced the darkest liquor. While this tea also maintained a good balance of tea and bergamot, the citrus notes were more natural lemon than candied, which makes sense, considering the use of bergamot peel versus oil.

So, where am I with the old Earl? For starters, no more milk. I will keep pursuing blends made with black tea from either Yunnan or Keemun, as I believe they pair much better with the bergamot than flavors from Sri Lanka or India. The creme variety would be wonderful when I am craving something luxurious, and for an afternoon pick me up, the classic blend with a squeeze of lemon can’t be beat. I feel like I traveled all the way around the world to end up almost in the same place, but I am so happy to be back on good terms with one of my favorite teas.

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