Who was Earl Grey and why is there a tea named in his honor?

Earl Grey sounds like the name of an Appalachian stock-car driver, but the tea is so-called after an Englishman whose given name was Charles, actually, and who was the second Grey to bear the ancient Anglo-Saxon title of earl, or count.  Charles Earl Grey was a humane and energetic man who served as Prime Minister for a time (1830 to 1834)  under William IV (ruled 1830-1837).  But, the origin of his name-sake tea is a mystery.

One possible story claims the earl received the recipe from a Mandarin Chinese purveyor of tea, shared with him while he was traveling through China. Another tale is  that the secret but distinctive ingredient was shared with him by one of the British diplomats serving in China during this time. 

This is not all that’s disputed: Twinings and Jacksons of Piccadilly contended for generations over which firm had rightful claim to the original Earl Grey formula.  The Hon. Georgina Stonor, whose family bought Jacksons in 1931 from the descendants of the founder, has written: “This (secret recipe) was entrusted by Lord Grey to George Charlton in 1830 – who was a partner of Rob’t. Jackson & Co…. Jacksons remain sole proprietors of this original formula which remains unaltered today….”  The point became moot in 1990 when Jacksons was acquired by Twinings.  Earl Grey has long been Twinings’ best-seller, of course, and the Hon. Samuel H.G. Twining estimates present sales to approach fifteen tons per day worldwide.


What is the secret ingredient in Earl Grey Tea?

What makes this tea so special – regardless of the kind of tea used – is the oil of bergamot that is added.  This may be natural, nature identical or synthetic.  Which of these and in what amount it is used determines the intensity of the scent, which varies widely from brand to brand.  Bergamot is unknown in China and has nothing to do with the town of Bergamo in northern Italy, by the way.

It is a Turkish name given to a pear-shaped fruit (Citrus bergamia) long grown around the Mediterranean for the oil which can be pressed out of its rind and used in perfumery.  The question has always been: how did it get into the Earl’s tea? 

My Australian colleague Ian Bersten would appear to have finally figured out the answer.  Over the centuries of the Jewish diaspora, bergamot came into use as the etrog, a citrus fruit used ritually in the Jewish Succoth festival, which Jews traditionally obtained from the Greek island of Corfu.  From the Napoleonic wars until 1848, Corfu served as the Mediterranean base for the British Royal Navy.  Britain’s tea-addicted naval officers were thus stationed in the world’s principal bergamot market throughout Earl Grey’s entire career in London, less than a month’s sail away.  Obviously he liked bergamot-enhanced tea enough to be remembered for starting the fashion.  (Only Sicily grows bergamot commercially today, I believe.)

To me the abiding mystery about Earl Grey tea is . . .

. . . why on earth is it so popular?  It seems like a nice enough tea, one which has its place and gives its pleasure too, but just what makes it an international best-seller?  Is it because Earl Grey was the first scented tea drunk in the West?  Certainly its popularity here parallels that of jasmine-scented tea in Asia; jasmine tea is the Earl Grey of northern China.

Cup of black tea and half of a bergamont citrus. The oil of this citrus is the secret flavoring for Earl Grey Tea

Other famous tea lovers who influenced our tea tastes.

J.P. Morgan, as recent biographies remind us, was not just a great financier but a great connoisseur of art and books who cherished peace and quiet – and tea.  There was a tea firm which Mr. Morgan passed each day near his offices.  Inside he always saw the same taster at work, “sipping, spitting and looking wise,” as it’s been described.  After many years of this nodding acquaintance, he ventured in to ask this professional to appraise his personal blend. 

He left, the story goes, visibly agitated and exclaiming, “What do you know about tea – nothing!”  To tease the great man, the taster had solemnly assured him that his favorite blend was the worst tea he’d ever tasted.  Mr. Morgan never forgot – but never caught on.  Perhaps no one else had ever twitted him.  His blend, which combines Formosa Oolong and certain black teas with a faint smokiness from Lapsang Souchong, was created for Mr. Morgan by Lester Vail of Simpson & Vail, a firm that has been an institution for New York tea lovers for almost a century.  The firm still sells J.P. Morgan tea, as does the Morgan Library.

Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry

Lady Londonderry ordered a particular blend of Ceylon, India and Formosa teas to be prepared for her by Jacksons of Piccadilly around 1900 about the time she was becoming London’s most famous political hostess. 

Its popularity – and snob appeal – spread like her Ladyship’s fame, a good example which also explains Twinings Queen Mary tea and Prince of Wales tea, Fortum & Mason’s Duchess of Devonshire tea and similar relics, all of them interesting and many quite fine.

This article was updated from the original 2009 publication.

More about Earl Grey Tea on T Ching