Pre-pandemic, coffee shops were basically my office. I’d sit at a corner table with an Earl Grey tea like I owned the joint—essentially becoming the classic, fictional mob boss who takes meetings in the back booth of an Italian restaurant. The only difference was that I did a little more “drinking tea,” and slightly less “murdering all my enemies.” But other than that, totally the same.
I’ve spent so much time buying Earl Grey tea at coffee shops that it’s embarrassing. Ellen Degeneres once made fun of me, specifically, for doing so. And when you’re called out for your tea obsession on national television, you know you’re pretty far gone.
But I’ll admit, the habit is expensive (I mean—do my kids really need to go to college?), and more importantly, I’ve been avoiding indoor public spaces during the pandemic. Which means, I’ve had to cut out my trips to coffee shops. I’ve really missed the magic of working with the perfect cup of tea. And in the last two years, I just haven’t found my store-brand tea soulmate yet (though spoiler, now I have, and I’m sipping its magnificence while I write this!). So I asked Food52 if I could go on an epic* quest to find the very best Earl Grey brand to brew at home. They were on board, and I drank a whole lot of tea so…here we go.
*The first and last time anyone will describe sipping tea as “epic,” probably.
Earl Grey tea is, quite simply, a black tea mixed with oil from the bergamot plant, a citrus fruit grown in Italy. It’s named after Earl Charles Grey II, who was the prime minister of Great Britain from 1830 to 1834. He’s credited with introducing his tea namesake to Europe—where it took off and, afterwards, grew in popularity all over the world.
But beyond providing his name, no one is certain how he came to the recipe. Accounts range from the tea secret dramatically being given to Grey after he saved a man’s life, to the less exciting—like his family needing to cover up the taste of their gross mineral water. My theory is aliens, but as zero historians agree with me, believe that at your own risk.
There are lots of variations on the classic. For this test, I often tried multiple kinds of the same brand and then just dropped my favorite one in the list. And I wasn’t picky on Earl Greys that were snazzied-up a bit, I was looking for the best—so I can’t count out a little lavender if it gives me the most transcendent tea-sperience of my life, can I?
I tried all the teas in one afternoon, applying the recommended brewing method for black tea—using water that’s just under boiling and letting the tea steep for three to five minutes. I like my tea on the stronger side, so I went with five minutes across the board. When looking for the best Earl Grey tea, there were a few factors that I was looking for, balance between the tart citrus of the bergamot and floral sweetness, bold, smooth flavor (I still want it to feel like a black tea), and a pleasant fragrance (is there anything better than breathing in a warm cup of fragrant tea right before you take a sip?).
There was some steep competition. But now, it’s time to spill the…you know.
Price: $9 for 15 tea bags
This was an understated offering—black tea that’s light and sweet with just a hint of citrus. The lavender is noticeable, but not so much as to be overpowering. It felt like the kind of soft tea you’d sip at a spa before a treatment.
Price: $21 for 12 tea bags
First, the smell of Art of Tea’s offering is absolutely delectable—like being in an old-fashioned ice cream shop. Which made me concerned that it would be way too sweet, but the vanilla is so light, complementing the acidic quality of the citrus nicely. It’s a twist on classic Earl Grey, but leaves its bold taste intact.
The one downside is that their tea is pricier than some of the others, but if you’re looking to splurge a little, it’s amazing.
Price: $4.74 for 20 tea bags
This tea reminds me more of English Breakfast (the bergamot notes are very light), but it’s affordable and pleasant. So if you’re like me, and can go through quite a bit of tea in a workday, it’ll save you from going into crushing debt due to your tea habits.
Price: $10.14 for 20 tea bags
Harney and Sons’ Earl Grey blends the signature black tea and bergamot oil combo with white tea. And this gives it a more complex flavor than some others on the list—with a bold, wintery feel that makes you want to drink it in front of a roaring fire. Plus, the brand has the prettiest old-fashioned tins! It would make the nicest gift of the bunch.
Price: $6.99 for 18 tea bags
The citrus notes are present in Numi’s bright Earl Grey but balanced nicely with its soothing black tea. If you’re looking for a classic Earl Grey with high-quality ingredients, it fits the bill nicely. A little forgettable, though.
Price: $56.70 for 1 pound of tea leaves (makes 35 cups)
A very smooth tea that replaces the (more often found) lavender with notes of geranium and rose, adding a dash of floral complexity. This is also a pretty tea and, brewed in Rishi’s glass teapot, perfect to serve to guests when you want to be a little fancy.
Price: $9.95 for 15 tea bags
I really liked this tea — it smelled like warm honey mixed with a hint of vanilla. The quality of the tea was strong and the flavor was lovely — a little bitterness balanced with floral sweetness. However, the bergamot oil gets a little lost here. If I were craving Earl Grey, it probably wouldn’t be my first choice.
Price: $9.70 for 36 tea bags
This tea was super budget friendly, but the affordabilty doesn’t mean it skimps on flavor. It’s bright, bold, and the perfect tea to sip on all afternoon. The extra bergamot really stands out, and while I was worried it might be too tart, it was incredibly balanced. I tried a few of their other flavors too, but the double bergamot was just so good.
Price: $3.39 for 20 servings
I often buy Tazo on Target runs because it’s both flavorful and super affordable—and this instance was no different. This is not a sweet Earl Grey; it’s on the bold side, reminding me more of coffee, with an earthy aroma and tart after taste.
Price: $23.12 for 60 tea bags
This was so fragrant that I could smell the flowers wafting toward me the minute I opened the box. And taste-wise, it was like an explosion of flavor: slightly tart with floral notes and a lingering taste of vanilla. If you like your tea sweet, this one will satisfy you without any added sugar. It was a bit too intense for me, though.
Price: $4.49 for 20 tea bags
This is a very classic Earl Grey—the kind of tea Ted Lasso would certainly hate—slightly tart with stronger notes of bergamot than some of the other teas. It doesn’t quite evoke the coffee shop feel (which I tend to associate with more complexity), but it does the job.
Bonus: Twinings claims that Richard Twining was the first to recreate the tea for the Earl—so for any Earl Grey purists out there, this is your guy.
Price: $11.99 for 30 tea bags
This Earl Grey leaned more toward the bitter side as well, but with a bold flavor. Smooth and deliciously tart, the bergamot oil really shines. This was definitely a top contender for me, though ultimately, there were others that won out.
And the winners are….
I could not stop drinking this, even knowing I still had a lot of tea to try. I finished the taste test and made myself another cup! It was so light and balanced, the sweetness was exactly the right amount and if I could make a perfume from its scent, I would. It is one of the more expensive options, but still cheaper by the cup than going to a coffee shop!
Look, I have found my tea soulmate and I am never letting go.
I was a little torn here when picking a favorite, because I really, really liked this tea. Ultimately though, the bergamot is overpowered by other flavors, and so it just didn’t feel Earl Grey-ish enough to give it the top spot. That said, I thought it was such a unique take that I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out that this is a lovely, very smooth, sippable tea.
Best Budget-Friendly Option
I just loved the boldness and classic taste at such a low price. This wasn’t a blind taste test, but I suspect I would have guessed the price of this as quite a bit higher than it is. It’s quality with value.
What’s your favorite brand of Earl Grey? Let us know in the comments.