For more than a century, tea historians believed that British aristocrat Charles Grey, the country’s Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, introduced Earl Grey tea to London drawing rooms. According to traditional lore, he received the distinctive blend as a gift and then shared it with friends and such notables as Queen Victoria. The original mixture contained black China tea tinctured with citrus oil from the bergamot orange, a fruit native to Italy.
One version of the tale involves a Chinese mandarin who presented the Earl with a tea he had specially formulated to mask the taste of lime in the Earl’s local water supply. Another rendition sweetens the plot by casting Charles Grey as a hero who saved the son of a Chinese official. In gratitude, the official sent Grey a supply of the flavorful tea.
The Earl and the Tea: Truth or Fiction?
However, doubts about a connection between the Earl and the tea have called the well-loved legend into question. No records exist to verify that Charles Grey ever traveled to China. Also, the Chinese almost certainly had no access to bergamot oranges.
Historic accounts from the early 1800s suggest that certain tea makers used bergamot to disguise the shortcomings of inferior tea so they could charge a premium price. This practice raises reasonable doubt that an English aristocrat would have leant his name to a questionable product.
The Oxford English Dictionary Investigates Grey's Mixture
In 2012, The Oxford English Dictionary made a public appeal in an attempt to discover the true origins of bergamot-scented black tea. The appeal unearthed several interesting bits of data but reached no definitive conclusions. OED found references from as early as 1884 to Earl Grey’s mixture but nothing to suggest the existence of Earl Grey tea until long after the actual Earl’s demise.
Pending further revelations, OED’s research threatens to sever the longstanding link between Earl Charles Grey and the tea that bears his name. Some speculate that William Grey, a London tea merchant who advertised his “celebrated Grey’s mixture” in publications dating to the mid-19th century, originated the popular blend.
Earl Grey Tea Trendsetters
British-based Jacksons of Piccadilly was among the first tea companies to produce the bergamot-scented tea for sale to the general public under the name Earl Grey’s Mixture. Later, Charlton & Co. and Twining’s of London also marketed similar blends.
Today, a multitude of Earl Grey teas are available, some containing such ingredients as lavender and green tea leaves. A variant known as Lady Grey tea includes lemon and Seville orange peel in addition to bergamot oil. Legend has it that the Earl’s wife served her tea to appreciative visitors at their London abode. The original Earl Grey tea blend is a mainstay in Tea Forté’s popular Sampler Collection and also available in single flavor boxes or in loose tea format.