Twinings changes their Earl Grey. Stop the presses. Or don’t.
The tea world is all a-twitter because British tea giant Twinings has changed the formulation of their Earl Grey tea after over a century and a half. This is being likened to the “New Coke” fiasco. It’s difficult to address a subject like this without puns, so let me get this out of the way and call it a tempest in a teapot.
When it comes to Earl Grey tea, we are swimming in a sea of alternatives. Every tea company has their own twist on the blend, and the only things they have in common are black tea and bergamot. In fact, even the black tea part is optional these days. You can get Earl Grey made from Chinese tea, Indian tea, Ceylon tea, or Kenya tea. You can even get white Earl Grey, green Earl Grey, red Earl Grey (which is made with rooibos rather than tea), or Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. The amount of bergamot can vary from just a hint to enough to knock your socks off. You can get your Earl Grey with lavender or dozens of other additives.
I am most amused by the Earl Grey variants that they call “citrus” Earl Grey. Hey, guys, all Earl Grey is citrus. That’s what bergamot is. It’s a variety of orange.
We’ve done some experimentation in our tea bar. Since Earl Grey tea is hugely popular — one of my personal favorites, in fact — we started out with four Earl Greys: Rishi’s Ancient Tree Earl Grey, Empire’s Earl Grey Supreme, a rooibos Earl Grey for the caffeine-free crowd, and our own lavender Earl Grey blend we call Lady Grey [Update Apr 2012: Actually, we now call it Lady Greystoke. Here’s why.]. Yes, we know that’s not what’s in Twinings’ Lady Grey. We don’t care.
We knew those last two were going to be specialty drinks. The purists wouldn’t be interested in either one. The first two would be a horse race for popularity.
Rishi’s offering is my personal favorite. It’s a very straightforward Earl Grey made from organic fair-trade Yunnan Dian Hong. The Earl Grey Supreme from Empire Tea includes quite a bit more bergamot and some other citrus as well. The horse race became a runaway. Rishi’s Ancient Tree Earl Grey is the most popular tea at the tea bar (judging by ounces sold), outselling the high-bergamot Supreme by a four-to-one margin. If I were the type to draw conclusions based on a single data point, I’d say that adding more bergamot to Earl Grey isn’t a good thing.
That, however, is exactly what Twinings just did (and a touch of lemon, too).
This isn’t really going to affect me. They may have been first out of the gate with Earl Grey, but theirs has never been my favorite formulation. I think it will be a good thing for the tea business, though, as it will drive the old-line Twinings Earl Grey purists to get out and experiment a bit. We’ll see where it goes.
Update: 7 September 2011
That didn’t take long. Andrew Brown at the Telegraph blogged (actually before my post came out, so I suppose my research was inadequate) that Twinings has released “Earl Grey: The Classic Edition” to satisfy discontented fans. It’s an interesting post. The thing I find most interesting is the biography line at the top, which says, “Andrew M Brown is a writer with an interest in mental health and the influence of addiction on culture.” Good qualifications for someone writing about tea, eh?