Earl Grey is a staple of many a tea aficionado’s pantry. But have you ever wondered where the tea gets its name?
Somewhat surprisingly, Earl Grey tea is named after an actual earl. But exactly how the earl in question ended up with a tea bearing his own name is somewhat murky.
But although Earl Grey tea was, in fact, named for a real person, the story behind the whole thing differs from, say, that of the Granny Smith apple in some key ways. Here’s what we know about Earl Grey and his titular tea.
The Earl Grey for whom the tea is named is believed to have been the second person to hold the title. That’s Charles Grey who became the second Earl Grey on Nov. 14, 1807.
As the second Earl Grey, he led a distinguished political career. A member of the Whig Party, he was elected to Parliament in 1786 as a representative of Northumberland. He became Foreign Secretary in 1806, but only held the position for a year before he and the other members of the “Ministry of All the Talents,” as it was known, were dismissed by King George III for their refusal to capitulate to his demands regarding Catholic emancipation.
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However, after the Tory government under the Duke of Wellington was ousted with a vote of no confidence in 1830, the subsequent Whig government came into power with Grey as Prime Minister. During Grey’s term, the Reform Act of 1832 was passed, bringing major changes to the electoral system; additionally, slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1833. Grey retired in 1834 and lived until 1845. He died on July 17 at the age of 81.
Exactly why Charles Grey, the second Earl Grey, ended up with a tea bearing his name is something of a mystery. There are several legends, but none of them have been satisfactorily proven as the truth.
However, there are three prevailing legends. In the first, Grey is said to have received the blend now known as Earl Grey as a gift from a Chinese man as thanks for saving either the man’s life or his son’s. In the second legend, Grey is said to have been given the recipe for the tea by an envoy returning from a trip to China. Finally, in the third, the tea is said to have been created by the Grey family to offset the strong mineral taste of the water in the geographic area in which their ancestral home, Howick Hall, was located.
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The first story is widely understood to be apocryphal. The second is what tea giant Twinings uses on their website to highlight the distinction of their specific version of Earl Grey tea. There, it’s attributed to the seventh Earl Grey, who is quoted as saying:
“Twinings has been blending my family tea for years. Legend has it that my ancestor, the second Earl Grey, was presented with this exquisite recipe by an envoy on his return from China. He liked it so much he asked Richard Twining to recreate it for him.”
Meanwhile, the third is often pushed by Howick Hall, which today encourages visitors to explore the gardens and arboretum located on the home’s grounds. According to Howick Hall’s website, the tea was “specially blended by a Chinese mandarin for Charles, 2nd Earl Grey to suit the water from the spring at Howick,” with bergamot being used to “offset the taste of the lime in it.” The tea is then said to have been introduced to London society when Grey’s wife, Countess Mary Elizabeth Grey (née Ponsonby), served it while entertaining in the city.
Although tea experts agree that there may be some truth to the second and third stories, the reality is that there’s little to no evidence that any of the three stories is true.
Regardless, there’s evidence of bergamot having been added to tea in England as early on as 1824, according to food historian Glyn Hughes’ Foods of England Project. Meanwhile, tea dealer William Grey & Co. advertised a “Grey’s Tea” during the 1850s, while Charlton & Co. advertised their “celebrated Grey Mixture” tea in the 1860s. By the 1880s, Charlton & Co. had begun calling this same “celebrated” tea not just “Grey Mixture,” but “Earl Grey’s Mixture”—thus marking the first known instance of Earl Grey being used as a name for a tea.
Earl Grey tea has never been trademarked, enabling numerous tea makers to create and offer their own versions of the blend. What’s more, variations on the general theme have begun to pop up, as well.
Earl Green teas blend the traditional Earl Grey bergamot flavoring with green tea. Meanwhile, Earl White teas do something similar with white tea; Red Earl Grey teas use Rooibos to make a naturally decaffeinated version of Earl Grey; and Lady Grey tea adds lemon and orange peels to the mix.
Lady Grey, notably, is trademarked. It belongs specifically to Twinings. According to the Telegraph, Twinings created it in the early 1990s as a milder version of Earl Grey that it hoped might appeal to those who found the dominant bergamot flavoring of traditional Earl Grey to be a bit too much for them.
Earl Grey has also become a popular flavoring for other treats as well, including baked goods, ice cream, and even lattes. Ever heard of a London Fog? Rather than being a coffee-based latte, it combines Earl Grey with steamed milk, vanilla, and occasionally lavender.
So, whether you enjoy your Earl Grey the traditional way—with lemon but no milk—or in the form of a cake or other treat, know that you’ve got plenty of options to choose from. Pinkies up!