I’m sure most of you reading this will be familiar with Earl Grey, or perhaps even its many contrived iterations, such as Lady Grey or even Sencha Earl Grey, but as with all of the teas we source, we challenged ourselves to find or in this case, create, the ultimate expression of this classic tea.
Earl Grey simply means a black tea which has been scented with bergamot. The story goes that the recipe was named after Earl Charles Grey, second Prime Minister of the UK, who was gifted a particularly citrusy black tea blend from a ship that had returned from China. The citrus scent is thought by some to have been intentional but by others to have been a happy mistake – caused by the proximity of the tea with bergamot fruit which was also aboard the ship for the long journey from the far east to the UK. We’ll never know for sure, but what matters is that the combination of black tea and bergamot has stood the test of time and Earl Grey is a classic and much-loved tea – but one without much of a recipe.
Read on to find out why we chose black tea from Sri Lanka and how we get that citrus kick in our Earl Grey.
Origin: Hidellana and Sithaka Gardens, Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis
Name: Named after Earl Charles Grey, the 2nd Prime Minister of the UK, who was said to have been gifted this tea blend.
Style: Bergamot scented black tea
Terroir: Ruhuna is a low growing area in the south of Sri Lanka, known for its year-round production of bold and robust black tea.
Picking Season: All year
Leaf: Dark Ceylon leaf sprinkled with blue cornflower petals
Infusion: A dark, coppery walnut tea infusion.
Why did we choose Ruhuna for our Earl Grey?
Hearing that Earl Grey originated in China – or at least was a gift from the Chinese, we could have turned to high mountain gardens in China for a Keemun or Lapsang black tea as the base for our Earl Grey. Indeed, these places might have even been the original origins used. We didn’t though, because Keemun and Lapsang teas infer too much of their own particular fragrance, which comes from their origins and seasonal conditions, so when you blend them with extra bergamot or citrus flavour something is lost from both sides. The naturally occurring fragrances in the teas are masked and the bergamot has too much competition in the cup.
While this idea of distinctive flavour derived from a place is a quality we look for and love in single garden batches of tea, finding a consistent batch of Chinese black tea that would be suited to and even be enhanced by the addition of bergamot is unlikely. Instead, we needed a black tea with body, thick texture and a robust flavour that would also elevate the high notes of bergamot and for this, there are few places better suited than Ruhuna in southern Sri Lanka.
Firstly, the tea gardens here are at a low elevation, around 150m, in a sunny and tropical environment. This means they’re able to produce tea year-round without the tea plants becoming dormant during cooler seasonal conditions, giving less seasonal flavour variations and more consistency of taste.
Most importantly though is the flavour of the low-grown black tea from Ruhuna. Black teas from Ruhuna are rich, full and lightly fruity in taste, without too many top notes that you’d find in high mountain black tea, getting in the way of the Bergamot scent.
These leaves have plenty of character and when processed as a black tea, they add ‘structure’ to the infusion, meaning it has a smooth texture and depth of flavour beneath the bergamot aroma, elevating the experience of the infusion beyond just a lemony cup of tea.
What is Bergamot?
A huge part of what makes Earl Grey, Earl Grey is the scent, which mostly comes from the bergamot orange, perhaps not a fruit we would come across otherwise here in the UK. It’s a very fragrant citrus fruit the size of an orange, with a yellow or green colour similar to a lime (although the fruit itself is more of a mix of lemon and bitter orange). It’s understood that the fruit is native to South East Asia, but nowadays, the bergamot orange is mostly grown and harvested in Sicily and Calabria, in southern Italy. As I write this, we’re right in the harvest season, which runs throughout winter from November to January/ Feb.
How did we find this batch of tea and scent it?
As we’ve seen the base for our Earl Grey is a blend of black tea from gardens in Ruhuna, Sri Lanka, this current batch being mostly made up of productions from Hidellana and Sithaka tea gardens. We worked hard to perfect the blend of each batch of Earl Grey to make sure the flavour and texture are balanced before allowing the tea to be scented, but to understand what goes into the scent we need to go back a few years to our first batch of Earl Grey which was created with the help of a few friends.
When it comes to scenting Earl Grey tea there are actually a few options. You can go with a full bergamot essential oil which, although authentically fragrant, is particularly unstable and can easily go rancid in storage and affect the flavour of the tea. At the other end, you have the chemically artificial bergamot scent which reproduces the desired aroma and fragrance, although usually ineffective for scenting tea as it lacks depth and character. In the middle you have a natural mix of flavourings derived from bergamot as well as lemon and orange.
These are the options that we presented to the team of chefs from Heston Blumenthal’s experimental kitchen at the Fat Duck restaurant a few years ago. Using their expert tastebuds, we prepared a few different batches of Earl Grey for a blind tasting to help us choose the one that best represented the bergamot scent. The answer was unanimous. The clear winner was the natural flavouring, so not an essential oil but perhaps one that does an even better job of representing the flavour and aroma we crave from Earl Grey. Being mostly made from prime Sicilian bergamot and with the added natural zesty hints of other citrus fruit, the natural flavouring really sings out on top of the smooth black tea base for maximum flavour and lasting aroma.
What is this batch like to drink?
Every time I open a bag of loose leaf Earl Grey, I can’t deny that I will always spend longer than I should enjoying the depth of the bergamot and citrus fragrance. It’s just so intensely refreshing and uplifting and you begin to pick up hints of the malty and fruity black tea as well. This is doubly impactful once the leaves are infused as the fragrance spreads around the room like a refined incense or warming citrus scented candle.
The taste is at first rich and balanced – the scent comes across as a particular sweetness, almost like boiled sweets, that compliments the roundness of the black tea. It’s got strength too, but not like your typical breakfast tea. The strength here is a lasting citrus and rich red fruit that more of a calming and uplifting effect than the ‘get-up and go’ we would look for in something like Assam Breakfast. This flavour really carries through to the finish, so if you’re a lover of Earl Grey and usually enjoy it with milk and an extra slice of lemon, I would recommend trying it without first just to see how impactful the flavours are.
Where and when is this tea for?
Earl Grey is perhaps the ultimate refreshing afternoon tea. It makes a perfect pairing with rich, sweet snacks and compliments fruity flavours and rich sweet foods, with the sharpness of the bergamot scent cutting through the richness. It also has enough depth and body with the black tea base, so you’ll also find plenty of the comforting and warming qualities needed for the cooler temperatures of winter.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
One cup single serve, 250ml:
This tea is very easy to make and enjoy plenty of fragrance and depth. If using loose leaf then we recommend an infuser with plenty of room to allow the leaves fully infuse in the water. This will make sure you get maximum flavour and body out of your tea. Remember, when you think it’s the perfect strength, usually 3 minutes is enough for our Earl Grey, then pour out the whole infusion into your favourite mug for the complete, perfect cup.
This is our go-to method: 3g (2 teaspoons) per 250ml; 100˚C; 3 minutes infusion.
Our biodegradable pyramid tea bags work like any other, for a quick, no nonsense cup of tea. Simply add one to your favourite mug, fill it up with some boiling water and let it infuse for 3mins. When it’s ready, take your tea bag out and enjoy the fantastic flavour. We recommend letting the tea leaves do all the work, so there’s no need to squeeze the bag – but if you want to add the milk before or after, we won’t argue with you.
Method: 1 tea bag per 250-300ml; 100˚C; 3 minutes per infusion (add an extra minute if you like more strength)
Who is this tea for?
This is a tea for lovers of fragrant and fruity infusions, with an uplifting flavour that should hit the spot for anyone craving a rich and delicious cup. If you’re a fan of our Jasmine Silver Needle and would like a tea with a bit more strength and similar aroma, then go for this one. Equally, If you’re new to JING but a big fan of other Earl Grey teas, then we would certainly love for you to try ours and see if it can top your go-to tea with more bergamot intensity and a bolder taste of single origin black tea.