An Introduction to Earl Grey Tea

Flavor, History, Caffeine Levels, Types, and More

Steeping Earl Grey tea

Peden+Munk / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Earl Grey tea is one of the most popular teas in the West. This black tea with hints of citrus is a perfect introduction to tea. It is great served hot or cold, and pairs well with food. That's why it is a favorite for afternoon tea and preferred by many tea drinkers throughout the world. Explore its history and the great variety of Earl Grey available.

Earl Grey's Flavor

Earl Grey is a black tea, so it usually has a bold flavor. Unlike orange pekoe (which is a tea grade named for the Dutch royal House of Orange-Nassau rather than the fruit or the color orange), Earl Grey has a citrusy flavor.

Earl Grey's citrusy taste is due to the addition of natural or synthetic bergamot oil. The bergamot orange is a type of aromatic citrus fruit that is usually grown in the Mediterranean. Bergamot oil is extracted from the skin of the bergamot fruit. Although Earl Grey varies from one producer to another, its taste is often described as bright, refreshing, and bold.

Earl Grey's History

Earl Grey is named after Earl Charles Grey of England who was Prime Minister from 1830 through 1834. Although he abolished slavery during his time in office, he is most remembered for his namesake tea.

The common story behind the naming of Earl Grey is that the recipe was a token of thanks to the politician. It is said that he saved the son of a Chinese tea blender from drowning. In his gratitude for this good deed, the blender passed on this special recipe for a black tea flavored with bergamot oil.

In reality, it is highly unlikely that Earl Charles Grey ever visited China, much less saved a drowning boy there. No one really knows why Grey received this honor, though the tea was named around Charles Grey's time in office. It is entirely possible that the name could have simply been a nod to a powerful political leader.

More recently, Earl Grey tea has made a number of appearances in popular culture. It is a favorite of Captain Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation", as well as Sir Leigh Teabing of "The Davinci Code."

In America, Earl Grey is sometimes spelled Earl Gray instead, though this is not a generally accepted spelling of the name. 

Caffeine in Earl Grey

The caffeine content of Earl Grey varies from one type to another, but it is generally comparable to other black teas.

  • Regular Earl Grey Tea: 55 to 90 milligrams of caffeine per cup (sometimes incorrectly called caffeinated Earl Grey) 
  • Decaf Earl Grey: 2 to 10 milligrams per cup

Types of Earl Grey Tea

Earl Grey is so popular that it has spawned a number of similar teas. One of the most popular of these is Lady Grey, which is usually a blend of Earl Grey and blue cornflower blossoms.

Other popular Earl Grey variations include:

  • Russian Earl Grey: Earl Grey with pieces of citrus peel mixed in.
  • Decaf Earl Grey
  • Earl Red / Red Earl Grey / Earl Rooibos: A bergamot-flavored rooibos.
  • Earl Green: A bergamot-flavored green tea or, in some cases, a bergamot-flavored pouchong/baozhong.

Tea companies offer other stately names such as Mademoiselle Grey or Lord Grey. These are blended with spices, flowers (such as rose petals or lavender), or other ingredients.

You may see a drink called London fog at some coffee shops and tea shops. This is a tea latte made from Earl Grey, steamed milk, and vanilla syrup.

How to Make and Enjoy Earl Grey

Like many black teas, Earl Grey is fairly easy to prepare. To brew Earl Grey tea, you'll need a teapot, some Earl Grey tea leaves, and quality water that is nearly boiling or at the boiling point.

Some people prefer to pre-warm their teapot with hot water, which helps maintain the steeping temperature. To do this, simply pour boiling water into the teapot, wait a minute, and then discard the water.

To Make Earl Grey:

  1. Use about one teaspoon of tea leaves (or one regular-sized teabag) per cup of hot water.
  2. Steep in boiling or near boiling water for four to five minutes, depending on the tea and your flavor preferences.
  3. Then, remove the tea leaves (or tea bag).

Some people enjoy sugar and/or lemon in their Earl Grey. While it is not traditional to add milk to citrusy teas, some Americans also enjoy milk in their Earl Grey.

Earl Grey tea is one of the preferred teas for afternoon tea. It pairs very well with many sweets, such as scones and Madeleine cakes. Earl Grey is also a great tea for brunch pairings.

How to Buy Earl Grey Tea

Earl Grey is available in most Western grocery stores, tea shops, and gourmet foods stores, as well as on most online tea retail sites.

  • Loose-leaf Earl Grey tea is recommended over Earl Grey teabags.
  • If you prefer a strong black tea flavor, a base tea from Kenya, Ceylon, or Assam is usually a good choice.
  • If you prefer a milder black tea flavor, a base tea from Nilgiri or Darjeeling will be better for you.
  • If you like a smooth, rich black tea flavor, try Earl Grey with a Yunnan or a Keemun base.

If you want to try a variety of types of Earl Grey, check out companies with Earl Grey tea samplers or flavored tea of the month clubs.