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The History of Earl Grey Teas: Heroic Acts, Monopolies, and Freedom

By The Whistling Kettle October 7th, 2021

Earl grey tea is a distinctive black tea flavored with bergamot oil. It’s named after Charles Grey, a British earl of the 1800s who popularized it amongst the English aristocracy. Ever since, earl grey tea has spread across the world as a symbol of sophistication. It has a fascinating history full of tall tales and global trade. Bergamot is a citrus fruit from Italy and the black tea was most likely a gift from Chinese diplomats to Charles Grey when he reformed trade with China.

Earl grey teas are always in style, making frequent appearances in pop culture and restaurant menus. After learning its history, you’ll be ordering “earl grey, hot” to taste the magic for yourself.

The History of Earl Grey Teas:

Earl grey tea has a surprisingly progressive legacy. The tea was named after Charles Grey, a British Earl who served as Prime Minister from 1830-1834. Charles Grey wasn’t your stereotypical stuffy aristocrat. As part of the liberal Whig party in parliament, he helped pass big ticket reforms including:

  • The abolition of British slavery
  • Reformed child labor laws
  • Voting rights for a more democratic electoral system

But how does this relate to tea? This is where fact and legend start to conflict. There are several theories for how earl grey tea may have originated.

1. THE HEROIC LEGEND

You may have heard the legend of how Charles Grey saved the life of a Chinese man and was gifted tea in return. Some accounts say he saved the man from drowning, who was perhaps a diplomat or maybe a farmer. Some say he was gifted tea, others just the recipe.

Most of these stories conflict and historical sources say Charles Grey never set foot in China. The recipe for earl grey is also unlikely to be Chinese. Bergamot oil was from Italy and not known to have been used in China at that time. But with all that said, the legend still makes for a good story…especially when entertaining guests for afternoon tea.

2. A CLEVER COVER-UP

Another theory is that Charles Grey and his family requested a tea be made that would cover the taste of their tap water. They lived in Northumberland, England, which had very hard water. Limescale (minerals) made the water very alkaline. Black tea and bergamot are both acidic and could improve the taste by neutralizing the water.

Although we cannot say for sure whether this was true, it’s a plausible story. What we do know is that Charles Grey and his wife served black tea with bergamot oil when hosting diplomatic events. It was quite popular with their guests and soon all of England wanted the tea. Whether or not it was invented to improve their water remains a mystery.

3. DIPLOMACY AND FREE TRADE

This theory takes a political twist. One of the policies Charles Grey changed while Prime Minister directly related to tea. In 1833 he busted the East India trading company’s monopoly on China. This opened up China for free trade with Europe while the tea trade was booming. It also increased profits for China. Some say earl grey tea was a gift from a Chinese diplomat, grateful for the policy change.

There is no precise record of a diplomatic gift of tea. But the impactful political move may have sparked a moment of gratitude. The only sticking point is that bergamot was not known to have been used in China at the time. The more likely scenario is that Charles Grey may have been gifted a fine black tea from China and tried adding bergamot to it himself.

Fact or Fiction?

It’s safe to say you’ll never drink earl grey the same way again! This mysterious tea is full of good stories. Two British tea companies, Twinings and Jacksons of Piccadilly even claim to have been the ones who formulated the original tea for the Grey family. But in the end, only Charles Grey would know who was truly the first to make this tea.

How to Enjoy Earl Grey Teas:

Charles Grey would have served his tea British style with a splash of milk and sugar. Earl grey is still enjoyed this way and makes for a creamy, sweet treat. The bergamot adds an elegant lightness to the tea and the strong black tea balances the sweetness. Charles Grey was sipping tea before teabags were invented, so we recommend sticking to loose leaf tea for the full experience. Loose leaf tea is also higher quality and more flavorful.

We have many variations of earl grey teas to try, from our Lavender Earl Grey to our luxurious Buckingham Palace Earl Grey. You can follow these easy instructions to brew a cup and ponder earl grey’s history while you sip.

  1. Add 1 teaspoon of loose leaf earl grey tea to an infuser in a mug
  2. Boil 8 ounces of water
  3. Fill the mug with boiling water
  4. Steep for 3-4 minutes.
  5. Add milk and sugar or enjoy your earl grey straight.

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