My love Patrick goes through beverage kicks. When we were new to the wedded world, tall slushy margaritas were our drink; we'd sit on the deck sipping our drinks and watching the western sky change colors. Then Patrick took up pool and Ping-Pong with his college friend Frank. He insisted that gin and tonics helped his game. Then it was warm beverages: cappuccinos one winter, followed by a couple years of lattés. Recently Patrick has had a hankering for tea. He's been drinking peppermint tea after dinner, and his favorite, Earl Grey, in the morning and afternoon. I was thinking this tradition is here to stay -- at least for a season or two -- and I was eager to find the best Earl Grey tea for Patrick's Father's Day basket. I hopped onto my bike and headed off to buy the teas, stopping in at Trader Joe's, Vons, Starbucks, and the local tea store, All Things Bright and British in La Mesa Village. The saleslady from the teashop, who hails from England, said she was not a fan of Earl Grey tea. "Some people really like it, but I find it too sweet," she explained. She showed me the Taylors of Harrogate brand, which she thought was the best. I bought that one and the two others that they sold.
I arrived home and sat at the kitchen island perusing the boxes.
"This classic beverage was popularized by Earl Grey in the early 19th Century... We blend premium quality Ceylon, Assam, and Yunnan black teas with 100 percent pure bergamot oil from Calabria, Italy..." stated the box of Stash Premium Earl Grey Black Tea.
"The oil of Bergamot is derived from the rind of the Bergamot orange..." read the box of Trader Joe's Specialty Teas Earl Grey.
"The Chinese ancients, ever in pursuit of perfect harmony of mind, body, and spirit, drank their teas blended with the oils and blossoms of various fruits and flowers. Tradition has it that the secret recipe for this tea blended with natural oil of Bergamot was given to one of Earl Grey's diplomats in the 1880s by a Chinese Mandarin as a reward for saving his life..." offered the box of Taylors of Harrogate Earl Grey Tea.
I invited chum Bernice to bring her keen palate and join in the sipping. She arrived and plopped down a copy of Garrison Keillor's The Book of Guys. "He has a chapter in here titled Earl Grey," she laughed. "He says he was a middle child, used to suffering and being forgotten, but now his tea is one of the most popular in the world."
I assured her I would read it and took the whistling kettle off the stove. After pouring out a row of tea, we let each brew for two minutes.
Bernice suggested comparing their aromas. Two of them, Taylors of Harrogate ($7.99 for a box of 50 bags at All Things Bright and British) and the Trader Joe's ($1.79 for 20 bags), had none of the Earl Grey perfume smell but a strong black tea aroma. "The Bigelow Earl Grey [$2.99 for a box of 20 bags at Vons] smells like burnt coffee grinds," Bernice grimaced as she pulled her nose from the cup. I smelled cigarette butts. Patrick smelled soil.
Some teas had an overpowering citrus aroma. "I can almost taste marmalade when I smell this Stash Earl Grey tea," Patrick commented ($3.49 for a box of 20 bags at Vons).
The Twinings Aromatics Earl Grey ($7.59 for 50 bags at All Things Bright and British) was also too aromatic. "A strong floral smell," Bernice offered. And the Starbucks Tazo Earl Grey tea perfumed the air. "I wonder if there's something other than an oil of bergamot in this because it has a strong perfume smell." Bernice seized the box and read all six sides but couldn't find any secret ingredient. "I'd swear there was jasmine in this."
We moved to the sipping. One tea was written off immediately. The Safeway Select Earl Grey ($2.99 for a box of 24 bags at Vons) was watery, giving no black tea flavor at all.
The Trader Joe's Organic Earl Grey Tea ($2.29 for 20 tea bags) had a sharp acidity to it. "A horrible aftertaste, and you just want to get that taste right off of your tongue," I moaned.
We finally found a pleasant taste in the Starbucks Tazo Earl Grey ($4.95 for a box of 24 bags). "After all, it is 'The Reincarnation of Tea,'" scoffed Patrick, reading the box. That tea was his favorite, however. "The standard to which all others must be compared," he smiled. "Give me a couple of those shortbread cookies they sell at Starbucks and I'm in heaven."
Bernice found it too strong. My friend and my hubby also disagreed over the Trader Joe's Earl Grey. It had too sharp a black tea taste for Bernice's liking, though Patrick placed it as his second favorite.
Bernice's favorite was Twinings Aromatics Earl Grey. "It's got a long finish, not harsh, and it's a whole-mouth experience," she said. It was the darkest brew of the bunch.
Her second choice was the Stash Premium Earl Grey Black Tea. "I can taste more orange in this, and I like the finish," she remarked.
Both Patrick and Bernice loved the Taylor of Harrogate Earl Grey. "This is the best quality tasting black tea of the whole lot," said Patrick, "but you can't taste the bergamot in it at all, so it's not a good Earl Grey."