The Secrets of Earl Grey

Earl Grey 2

Earl Grey, one of the most popular teas in the world, has a mysterious past. Where did it come from, when did it first appear on the tea scene, and who was THE Earl Grey?

While there are many variations of Earl Grey tea (Lady Grey, Double Earl Grey, or Russian Earl Grey), by definition, Earl Grey tea is a black tea that is flavored by the oil from the rind of the bergamot orange. These oranges are most commonly found in Italy.

While it’s easy to define what it is, it’s not so easy to define how it came about. Most recently, in 2012, researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary discovered the earliest known reference to bergamot-flavored tea was in 1824. At that time, it appears the flavoring was used to enhance lower quality teas. Not exactly a note-worthy start for a now-beloved tea!

Before this discovery, more glowing rumors and legends abound. Some of the more flattering ones:

– Earl Grey’s dear Mandarin friend was kind enough to create this blend to reduce the flavors of minerals found in the water of the Earl’s home.

– Because of some favors granted to China, the Earl was given the tea blend recipe as a thank you gift.

– Just as the discovery of tea itself was an accident (a tea leaf dropping into an Emperor’s cup of boiling water), the blend occurred when a shipment of tea and a shipment of bergamot oranges traversed the sea together in the same cargo hold and the tea absorbed the essence in passage.

Lovely tales, indeed!

The Earl Grey, himself, is a bit of a minor historical figure. Charles Grey inherited the title of Earl after the passing of his father, the first Earl Grey. He was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834 and has two significant acts credited to his time in office (the Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833). He also fathered a child out of wedlock (quite a scandal in those days!). While it might be useful lore to say the Earl himself had a hand in the creation or popularization of the tea blend bearing his name, my guess is that some cunning tea seller invented it (and a connection to a known political figure) to boost sales.

Regardless, there’s a reason Earl Grey is one of the most popular teas in the U.S. and the world. It’s delicious, plain and simple! One of Kat’s favorites is HEB’s Earl Grey. The experience begins with the steeping, as she inhales the combined scents of the malty black tea and the sweet citrus of the fragrant bergamot. We’ve found some Earl Grey teas that have too much bergamot, which can give a soapy taste, but this one has the perfect balance: just a hint of bright sweetness with the bold black tea. There are some days she adds milk and sugar and other days where she drinks it plain. It is both the height of luxury and a tea for everyman (or woman!).

What’s your favorite Earl Grey legend?

The Basics of Matcha

Let’s just get it out there: The nation has a case of Matcha Madness!

So many of Kat’s friends have been talking about it – Matcha Lattes, Matcha cookies, Matcha smoothies – but most of them are not sure what it really is.

Here’s the scoop: All matcha is powdered tea, but not all powdered tea is truly matcha.

Matcha 3

Matcha, the word itself, is a Japanese word that embodies not only the cultivation but the processing of the tea leaves. For you wine aficionados, you may be familiar with the term, “terroir.” This refers to the impact of the soil and environment impact the flavor of the wine grapes. A Cabernet from a certain region of France, for example, will have slightly different flavor characteristics from a Cabernet from Napa even if they are processed in the exact same way. Terroir affects tea as well.

With that in mind, we start with the uniqueness of the terroir in different regions of Japan. Then we add the process, with starts with Tencha. In Japan, there are strict regulations of the cultivation of Tencha. For weeks prior to the harvest, the tea plants are shaded, which increases the production of chlorophyll within the leaves, intensifying the natural sweetness and delicate, smooth flavor. Then the leaves are plucked by hand, steamed to stop the oxidation and slowly dried. The stems and leaves’ veins are typically removed to reduce potential bitterness. The dried leaves are then slowly ground in hand crafted stone granite mills, which is believed to get the finest grade of ultra-fine powder.

In Japan, the matcha label is backed with these high standards, and any other form of powdered tea is listed as that: Powdered Tea. Outside of Japan, there are no universally accepted standards for matcha, so what you find labeled as matcha in the U.S. might not necessarily be Japanese-defined matcha.

Does it matter?

As wine lovers will tell you, there is no replicating the impact terroir has on their favorite wine. Lovers of Japanese Matcha will tell you there’s no replicating the oceanic, strongly vegetal quality it has. Char loved using powdered green teas for cooking, and Kat has inherited that love of infusing dishes with powdered green tea, but when it comes to a cup of matcha, there is no substitute for Japanese-defined matcha.

Then there’s preparation! But, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth a million. We love this video demonstration of matcha preparation by tea blogger, Nicole Martin.

Tea Cups from Around the World

In the Western World, when one hears the word, “tea cup,” the first thing that comes to mind is that of the porcelain variety. One that looks, frankly, like me! But when it comes to tea, as you travel around the world, you’ll see that the word “tea cup” looks rather different depending on where you are.

Tea Cups Around the World

In Japan, you’ll see ceramic tea bowls being used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Many of the prized tea bowls are crafted by artisans who use specific materials from one geographic region. It is believed that a beautifully crafted vessel can enhance the flavor of the tea and the joy of drinking it.

In parts of India, chai is still served in the traditional red, unglazed, clay cups. These small cups (until recently, they were the norm throughout the country) are a single use vessel. Once the chai is consumed, the cups are discarded on the ground, out a train window, down a river bank. When the rains come, the cups disintegrate and they turn back into India’s red earth. An economical and ecological use of local resources!

Since the 18th century in Russia, tea has been commonly served in drinking glasses in a Podstakannik, or metal tea glass holder. These practical holders allow people to drink hot beverages from their common drinking glasses and also provide additional stability – especially on the Russian trains. (I can vouch for how slippery those dining car tables are!)

In North Africa, traditional mint tea is prepared in the tea pot and then poured from nearly standing height into small glass cups, aerating the tea and creating a bit of a froth that almost resembles beer foam! The tea glasses may be clear or bright and colorful.

In Argentina, where yerba mate is the herbal tisane of choice, the “tea” is served in a gourd or gourd shaped cup and the tea is sipped through a metal straw, or bombilla. 

Regardless of your vessel of choice, tea can bridge class, culture, status and state. It brings people together and is a luxury all can afford.

What is your tea cup of choice?