Who was Earl Grey?

Right Honorable Charles, Earl Grey, 1833, The second Earl Grey (Image courtesy of The British Library)

Right Honorable Charles, Earl Grey, 1833, The second Earl Grey (Image courtesy of The British Library)

Every tea drinker knows Earl Grey tea, the world’s favorite flavored tea. But few people know that the tea is named after Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey and British Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.

The original recipe for this beloved blend simply calls for black tea with the addition of oil of bergamot, squeezed from tiny lemons grown in the Mediterranean region.

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 the life of mandarin – 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 travelling 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, and it has been suggested that bergamot was chosen when the blend was mixed in Britain to replicate the citrus character of some other Chinese plant such as neroli (bitter orange) or citrus sinensis (orange blossom). Earl Grey’s family say that bergamot was used in order to offset the high level of limescale in the local water of Northumberland, where Earl Grey lived; Stephen Twining says that his family originally blended the tea at the 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.

While Twinings claims to have been the original blenders of the tea, Jacksons of Piccadilly also say that they are the owners of the original recipe. Indeed a Jacksons advertisement from 1928 states that the 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, it has served western tea culture well for 150 years because it has introduced many a tea novice to the joys of tea drinking.

Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, (Benjamin Press, November 2013)

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