I’ll start this off by saying: Never before have I encountered an Earl Grey origin story like this.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Sometime back in Spring, I started yacking with a blender in Montana (of all places) via Twitter – one Gary Robson. By sheer appearances and demeanor, he didn’t come across to me as your typical tea person. He came across as very…mountain. No seriously, this is the blender in question.
Not the type of guy that screams, I like tea. Then again, I’m not either. (Oh, who am I kidding?)
I perused his blog, which inevitably lead me to explore his website. The man was an author (his Who Pooped in the Park seems brilliant), ran his own bookstore (Red Lodge Books & Tea), and in the last few years added a tea bar to it. He was living my dream! What I found even more surprising was the quality of teas that he carried. Sure, there were blends present, but his line of single estate offerings was also quite extensive.
The true test of a tea bar, though, was there white tea section and – inevitably – their Earl Grey. Rule o’ thumb, you can guess the mettle of a tearoom based upon the Earl Grey they carry. Kinda like judging a dictionary by whether or not it has the word “etymology” in it, or a Bible that uses “Nephilim” instead of “giants”. (Whoah, that analogy was obscure.)
My eyes bee-lined to one Earl Grey in particular – Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. After reading the ingredients, my jaw dropped. It was a Lapsang Souchong variant of the age-old formula. I immediately private messaged Gary to inquire further. By happenstance, he was Vegas-bound in the next month for World Tea Expo. And so was I.
We encountered each other on the Expo floor, and he ran down the history of the blend. Gary had made a post on the Straight Dope message board about Twinings changing their signature Earl Grey recipe. The conversation did what most dialogues on the Internet did, it gravitated to flights of fancy. One participant – dubbed Mr. Excellent – made passing mention of not liking Earl Grey, rather preferring Lapsang Souchong. However, the idea of a bergamot-laden Lapsang appealed to him.
Gary ran with it. He mentioned to Mr. Excellent that he was going to toy with that very concept. Mr. Excellent added the phrase: “Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey” to a post of approval. And so, it was conceived. Via the Internet.
While certainly not the first to think of a smoky Earl Grey, he wanted to be the first to perfect it. The main problem was finding a balance between the bergamot and the pine-smoked black. When a suitable balance between the flavors was maintained, the blend needed to be cut with the right base. Given that Lapsang is from Fujian province, China, initially, Robson went with a Yunnan Dian Hong as a comparable foundation.
After reaching the right combination of tastes, Gary Robson announced via the same message board that “Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey” was ready for the masses. Mr. Excellent chimed in with a, “Tea. Earl Grey. Burnt.” And that cascaded into a brief conversation about zombies and their fear of bergamot oil.
Eight months later, Gary commissioned an old college friend of his son’s – Brandon Pope – to create a logo for the blend. The lad came up with this. Gary touched it up with some ghastly font, and it was ready for website whoring.
I received the blend in July on behalf of Gary Robson’s minions. It came in a bag that could best be described as radioactive. It practically glowed when I put it on my black-corduroyed lap.
When I opened the bag, what amazed me was how balanced the smell was. Smoke was there in spades, but so was the citrus-sour rind aroma of the bergamot. Both tangoed with each other, rather than tangled in a death match for supremacy. Both shared the aromatic luster with equal aplomb. Like a gentleman’s agreement.
Brewing was simple enough. I treated it like any other Western-style black – 1 tsp. per 8oz. of boiled water, and a three-minute steep. Of course, I did it by the pint.
The taste was a slightly different experience. Pine-smoke clearly took point, followed closely by the citrus. It would seem the gentleman’s agreement could only go so far. Something had to dominate. However, they both wove interchangeably in the middle and trail-off. Balance was still maintained.
A less sophisticated part of me almost wished there was more smoke and more bergamot. If that were the case, though, I don’t think the palate response would’ve been nearly as even. With the balance struck as it was, both smoke and citrus exhibited their strengths – like teamwork against an approaching zombie horde.
Needless to say, this has become one of my go-to teas for on-the-go. I could even give it a neglectful, “forever steep” while taking a shower, and it would still come out perfect. Hearty enough to take whatever fallout I dished it. My next mission: To finally visit Red Lodge Books proper…and acquire this by the pound.
Y’know…for the bunker.
I have a sad face now. Allergic to bergamot.
That makes me sad just hearing it.
Are you a zombie?
Brains…I mean, NO!
We’ve got a smoked Earl Grey at Happy Lucky’s and it’s one of my favorites there. I don’t like Lapsang on its own, and I’m not a huge Earl fan either, but somehow they balance each other surprisingly well. A customer once told me that his favorite cocktail in the world is a hot toddy made with smoked earl grey, Bulleit rye whisky, and raw sugar. Still haven’t tried that, but it sounds pretty great.
I’ve had a whiskey barrel-aged Lapsang before. Angels sang.
I want some!
You only live an hour away! Go get it!
I seriously know nothing about tea besides that I occasionally like a steaming mug of it at night… but, I love reading your descriptions of teas and the flavors. Makes me want to learn more!
It’s a drink with a two thousand year history. I didn’t ever think I’d get into something like…a beverage. (At least, not a nonalcoholic one.) Nor did I think I would have THIS much to write about it. Five years later, though…(heh)
I miss the salesperson Weretiger and the Smiling Silent Frenchman.
Someday he’ll show up again.
Mmm I love the taste of smoke, but Earl Grey has always seemed a bit blah to me- sounds like this might change my mind. On the other hand, did I just read whiskey barrel aged Lapsang? WHAT??
You heard right. Go here: http://www.rareteacellar.com.