Will the Real Earl Grey Please Stand Up?

Earl GreyEarl Grey is a flavored black tea that contains oil from the rind of the bergamot orange, which is a bitter citrus fruit mostly grown in southern Italy in Calabria. The black tea of choice depends on the tea company, with some companies who prefer to use a Chinese tea and others who prefer a Ceylon or Indian tea. Variations on the traditional Earl Grey include Lady Grey (a blend of Earl Grey scented with Seville oranges), Russian Earl Grey (Earl Grey with pieces of citrus peel), French Earl Grey (Earl Grey with the addition of rose petals), and even a Red Earl Grey, which is actually an herbal consisting of rooibos and the scent of bergamot oil.

There are several stories as to the origins of Earl Grey tea but let’s talk about the person that the tea is purported to be named after. Charles Grey was the Prime Minister of England between 1830 to July 1834, as well as the 2nd Earl. As Prime Minister, Grey’s government was renowned for passing major pieces of legislation such as the Reform Act of 1832 which reformed the electoral system of England and Wales; the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire; and the Government of India Act ending the monopoly of the East India Company in Britain’s trade with China on tea and other goods.

There is a debunked legend that one of the Earl’s men saved a young Chinese boy from drowning and the grateful father presented the Earl with tea that was flavored with the oil of bergamot. This legend is debunked because Earl never set foot in China. Another story suggests that a Chinese diplomat presented him with a gift of this specially flavored tea, and apparently he liked it, although there were questions of whether the bergamot orange was actually grown in China.

Another version tells how the blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot oranges were shipped together from diplomats in China, and the fruit flavor was absorbed by the tea during shipping. Again, whether the citrus fruit was grown in China was called into question. One possible explanation is that the tea in China wasn’t flavored by bergamot oranges, but by a different type of orange. Like Seville oranges, bergamot is a variety of “sour orange” (Citrus aurantium). Sour oranges have been grown in China since 300 BC, and it was almost certainly another variety of sour orange which the Chinese used rather than bergamot.

An entry in the 2013 Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests that Earl Grey is unlikely to have been named after the 2nd Earl Grey since references to the tea were made after his time in Government. According to the OED, ‘A number of modern tea purveyors date the origin of the tea to the 1830s, but when Oxford English Dictionary researchers looked into the name, the earliest example of ‘Earl Grey tea’ found dated from the 1920s, nearly a century after the first bergamot-scented cuppa was said to have been brewed’.

Instead, the OED found references to ‘Earl Grey’s mixture’ in 1891, which suggests that this was the original name for the tea. Jacksons of Piccadilly, a former London teahouse, which is now a brand owned by Twinings, stakes a claim to have invented Earl Grey’s Mixture in 1836 saying that they introduced this tea in order “to meet the wishes of a former Earl Grey”, although the claim has been contested as there have only been advertisements for ‘Earl Grey’s Mixture’ dating from 1884.

The earliest documentary evidence found of a connection between ‘Earl Grey’ and a blend of tea, was sold by Charlton and Co. The connection was actually to Henry, the 3rd Earl Grey (1802–1894), rather than the 2nd Earl Grey. The OED entry goes on to say that the mystery still hasn’t been completely solved, and though a connection to Charles, 2nd Earl Grey now seems unlikely, it cannot be ruled out.

There are many tea websites proclaiming that the tea was named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, but given this recent entry, who do you think the Earl Grey Tea is named after?

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