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The scent of bergamot

  • Earl Grey mixes black tea with the citrusy notes of bergamot
  • 200 years after it was first made, the Earl Grey continues to have numerous variations

Earl Grey
Earl Grey

The mention of Earl Grey immediately conjures up a hotel room, tea bags on a tray near an electric kettle, and the familiar flavour of a perfumed black tea. On the one hand, it’s an incredibly popular tea, and, on the other, tea aficionados often ask what its fans see in it.

Earl Grey tea, available from several brands, is a tea blend. The original blend had a black tea—maybe an Assam or a Keemun—combined with bergamot oil. It worked well with milk and sugar and was enjoyed for the citrusy hit from the bergamot oil. While it appears the Earl Grey tea stands for “English", “royal" and “premium", what it really implies is “flavoured black tea", “safe choice" and “easily available".

Charles Grey—the second Earl Grey and British prime minister from 1830-34—was not quite responsible for the tea that immortalized him. As with other tea legends, there are many stories about why his name is attached to this particular tea blend. The stories range from the mundane (Charles Grey received some of this tea and he loved it and endeavoured to popularize it) to the fantastic (Charles Grey saved the life of a Chinese tea trader’s son and as a token of thanks received a secret tea recipe!) that don’t ring true. The truth probably lies somewhere in a forgotten story of a tea trader who used bergamot oil to tamp down the poor flavours of an inferior black tea. Coming up with a name like Earl Grey was brilliant marketing because it did what the trader must have hoped—help the tea sell incredibly well. Two hundred years on, we are still drinking Earl Grey and spinning variations of it, since it was not trademarked by any brand.

What makes a black tea an Earl Grey is the bergamot oil, an essential oil from a citrus fruit grown in a small area in Calabria, southern Italy. The volume of production is small, and given that it finds use in cosmetics and fragrances as well, it’s not easily available. Mass tea blenders have simply made up for it with artificial flavouring. This also helps keep the price down. For, like the Madagascar vanilla or Kashmiri saffron or Darjeeling tea, the Calabrian bergamot oil commands great value.

The idea of a black tea with citrus notes has led to several variations and there are as many versions of the Earl Grey as there are teas—with green tea, with various black teas, with further additions of jasmine or even lemongrass. Lady Grey, nearly as popular as the classic Earl Grey, was trademarked by Twinings of London and includes an addition of lemon peel, orange peel and blue cornflower.

The Earl Grey you have enjoyed so far most likely comes in a tea bag that holds dust and fanning and is flavoured artificially. The perfumed notes are unmissable and if you like the tea blend, that’s probably an aroma you enjoy and look forward to. You can elevate this experience by seeking an Earl Grey that uses orthodox black tea or high-grade CTC (crush, tear, curl) with actual bergamot extract.


Vahdam Teas and Teabox offer Earl Grey made with bergamot extracts. They also carry variations of the Earl Grey. The Lady Grey, however, is solely a Twinings blend.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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