Although Earl Grey tea—with its distinctive bergamot flavor—is one of the most well-known and beloved tea blends, the origin of the tea and its name is less certain.
Charles, the Earl Grey
Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, is often cited as the source of Earl Grey tea. There are stories about his being gifted with such a tea and how he requested that British tea merchants supply it.
While it is true that his Reform Act lowered the cost of tea, allowing more people to drink it . . .
Or Maybe Henry George, the Earl Grey
Charles was born in 1764 and died in 1845—whereas the first evidence that linked “Earl Grey” with “tea” was an advertisement. In 1884.
Which would be in the 3rd Earl Grey’s lifetime (Henry George, 1802–1894).
Or Perhaps a Tea Merchant Named Grey?
However, there were earlier ads of a pricy “celebrated GREY MIXTURE” of tea that had been “rewarded with the most distinguished patronage.”
Merchants named “Grey” abounded in the 1800s, so the tea could refer to one of them. But who was the patron? Or was that just an advertising ploy?
And, we still don’t know what “mixture” meant. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, these ads don’t mention bergamot at all.
And About That Bergamot—
Researchers know that bergamot was added to tea as early as 1824—but to cover up low-quality tea! One company was brought to court in 1837 for misleading consumers by selling the secretly doctored tea as a higher-quality product, with a corresponding price tag.
It is possible that the addition of bergamot to tea caught on and eventually the oil was added to better-quality tea—evolving into that “celebrated Grey mixture”—but we are not certain.
Unless, of course, we can believe early 20th-century ads, such as those (in 1914 and ca. 1928) by Jackson’s of Piccadilly that assert that Earl Grey tea was introduced in 1836 “to meet the wishes of a former Earl Grey.”
Which could be Charles or Henry George!
Regardless of its true origin, aficionados of this tea will agree that Earl Grey tea is indeed—as Jackson’s of Piccadilly proclaimed a century ago—the “world’s most fashionable tea” with its “delicate aroma and distinctive flavor.”
For more about bergamot oil, see my earlier post: Bergamot Oil: The Essence of Earl Grey Tea
See these informative sources for more details and for examples of the ads mentioned above:
–”Earl Grey tea,” The Foods of England Project. Feb. 20, 2016.
–”Early Grey: The results of the OED appeal on Earl Grey tea,” OED Appeals, Oxford University Press.
Tea shown above is Earl Grey No. 69, available from TeaHaus