Update: The story of the origin of Earl Grey tea is one of the chapters in my book, Myths & Legends of Tea. Check it out!
England may not grow many tea plants, but the United Kingdom has had a massive impact on the development and popularization of tea since the 1660s. Our second stop on the Red Lodge Books & Tea World Tea Tasting Tour explored the world of Earl Grey tea, from the Right Honourable Charles Grey (for whom Earl Grey tea is named) to Star Trek TNG’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Earl Grey isn’t a single tea, but a broad range of styles. We carry nine different Earl Greys, of which over half are our own house blends, made right here in Red Lodge. The teas we tasted were:
- Organic Ancient Tree Earl Grey
- Lady Greystoke
- Jasmine Earl Green
- Coyotes of the Purple Sage
- Fifty Shades of Earl Grey
- Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey
We started out with a discussion of the history of Earl Grey tea. The common myth is that the tea blend was presented to Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey by a Chinese mandarin after Charles (or one of his men) saved the life of the mandarin’s son on a trip to China. In reality, Charles never set foot in China, and the history has a more mundane beginning. The Earl lived at Howick Hall, which had a high lime (calcium) content in its water. This gave his tea an off-flavor and he (or possibly Lady Grey, depending on who’s telling the story) consulted a tea expert for advice. This tea expert — possibly a Chinese mandarin, we don’t know — came up with the idea of adding the oil of the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) to the tea. This is what was served in Howick Hall, and the formula was eventually presented to Twinings by the Earl and it became one of their regular offerings. Twinings changed the formula a couple of years ago, but that’s another story. Before we leave the subject of bergamot, by the way, the word is Italian, not French, so the “T” at the end is pronounced. I have heard a lot of tea people talk about “bergamoh,” but it is actually pronounced just the way it is spelled. Tea purists who scoff at Earl Grey often use the word “perfumey” to describe it. There’s a reason for that. By some estimates, as much as half of women’s perfumes contain bergamot oil, and about a third of men’s fragrances. The first Earl Grey that we tasted is Ancient Tree Earl Grey from Rishi — a wonderful blend that does quite well in our tea bar. This amazing tea won “Best Earl Grey Tea” at the 2008 World Tea Championship. Next, we moved on to a house blend called Lady Greystoke. This is my take on lavender/vanilla Earl Grey, a blend which many tea shops would call Lady Grey, despite the trademark violation. Lady Grey tea is named for Mary Elizabeth Grey, the wife of Lord Charles, 2nd Earl Grey. Our Lady Greystoke is named for Jane Porter, who married Tarzan to become Lady Jane Greystoke (the full story is in an earlier blog post). For people that enjoy the bergamot, but want a milder tea, many shops offer an Earl Green or Earl White, and perhaps a caffeine-free Earl Red made from rooibos (yes, we have all three of those). For a different twist, we offered up a Jasmine Earl Green. Lightly perfumed with both with jasmine blossom and bergamot oil, it’s the most delicate of the teas we tasted. Next, we come to a popular blend of ours that really captures the character of the American West: a sage-based Earl Grey we call Coyotes of the Purple Sage. I know, it sounds rather strange, but the flavor mix really works. The literary allusion in this one comes from Zane Grey’s book, Riders of the Purple Sage. Yes, it’s a Zane Grey Earl Grey! For the story of the logo and blend, see my earlier blog post about it. The next tea also has a book theme — you can tell we have a combination tea bar and bookstore — but I’m not going to call this one a “literary” allusion, as nobody would refer to the Fifty Shades of Grey books as “literature.” I came up with the blend just for fun, with lots of punny references to the book, ranging from tea’s color (black and blue) to the rich flavor and overpowering bergamot. It actually ended up being quite tasty, and we’ve been selling quite a bit of it. We wrapped up with a signature house blend that’s completely different — a lapsang souchong-based Earl Grey that we call Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. The full story of that tea has already been told here, so I won’t repeat it. If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information). Let us close with a short video explaining the proper way to order a cup of Earl Grey tea:
With new tea blends, sometimes we come up with the tea first and struggle to think of the perfect name. Sometimes we come up with a cool tea name and then spend weeks tweaking the formula until we find just the right taste. And then the logo works its way into the equation.
Sometimes, however, everything comes together in a flash, and that’s what happened with this tea.
We were looking for ideas for a fundraiser, using a tea that had a real American West flavor to it. Being a tea bar/bookstore combo, a literary allusion makes things even better. As we were throwing out ideas, someone said “Zane Grey.” The next obvious leap was “a Zane Grey Earl Grey.” The next obvious leap was to Zane Grey’s best-known book, Riders of the Purple Sage.
The fundraiser is for the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary here in Red Lodge, and two of the well-known noisy critters right by the entrance are a pair of coyotes named Bonnie and Clyde. We wrapped everything up by tying in the Wildlife Sanctuary and naming the tea Coyotes of the Purple Sage.
The ingredients for the tea came together pretty quickly as well. Black tea and bergamot oil are the base for most Earl Greys. Sage was pretty much a mandatory ingredient. A bit of lemon verbena and and lemon thyme added more citrus notes and the thyme goes well with the sage (I will resist breaking into song here), and a subtle touch of peppermint finished off the blend.
My logo is an homage to the cover of the first copy of Riders of the Purple Sage that I read: