Earl Grey is a name that has been synonymous with tea drinking for over a century. It ranks at the top of the list of the five most recognized teas in western society. It is, after all, the favorite flavored tea in the world, and its derivatives are legion – Lady Grey, Earl Grey Lavender, Earl Grey Creme, etc.

Was the name an advertising gimmick or was there a real Earl Grey?

The answer is – a bit of both.

The revered tea was named after Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey (1764–1845), British Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.

The original recipe for this blend simply calls for black tea with the addition of oil of bergamot, squeezed from tiny lemons grown in the Mediterranean region. China black tea was first used as the base until English blenders began using Indian or Sri Lankan black teas as those gardens developed through the second half of the 1800s.

The stories about the origin of the blend are many and varied. Some say the recipe was given in thanks to a British diplomat when he saved a mandarin’s life – or perhaps the mandarin’s son – while in China on a mission for the Prime Minister. Some say it was Earl Grey himself who was traveling in China and saved the mandarin. Neither story has ever been substantiated.

Also difficult to explain is the use of bergamot. Bergamot is not a native Chinese fruit.  It has been suggested that a British tea merchant used a bit of potent bergamot oil to replicate the citrus character of some other Chinese plant, such as neroli (bitter orange) or citrus Sinensis (orange blossom). The Grey family says that bergamot was used to offset the high limescale level in their Northumberland water.

Stephen Twining says that his family first blended the tea at Greys’ request to make it palatable when brewed in London water when the Earl was at Westminster.  London water also contains high levels of limescale.

Jacksons Piccadilly claims to be the origin of the blend.

While Twinings claims to have been the original blenders of the tea, Jacksons of Piccadilly also say that they are the original recipe owners. Indeed, a Jackson’s advertisement from 1928 states that Earl Grey tea was “Introduced in 1836 to meet the wishes of the former Earl Grey.” The ad goes on to assert, “this fine blend of China tea quickly found favour with other connoisseurs who appreciate the delicate aroma and distinctive flavour.”

With no evidence, no letters or government papers, and no proof anywhere to be found, it is impossible to prove or disprove any of the stories and claims. It may simply be that a clever piece of marketing at some time in the distant past has permanently linked Earl Grey’s family with citrus fruits and diplomatic missions in China.

Whatever the origin, Earl Grey has served western tea culture well for 150 years because the long-forgotten gentleman has introduced many a novice to the joys of tea drinking.

Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. Available from Benjamin Press.

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