The name Earl Grey is as closely associated with tea as the custom of tea-drinking is with British culture. Earl Grey tea is traditionally made with Chinese black tea and flavoured with bergamot, the oil extracted from the Italian-grown citrus fruit of the same name. The blend is regarded as the world’s most popular flavoured tea.
You’ve probably drunk Earl Grey tea yourself; it may even be your favourite beverage. But have you ever wondered why it bears an aristocrat’s name? Most teas are named after the region they come from or their key ingredients, ‘but there is one name that stands out, and that is Earl Grey,’ remarks Stories about Tea.
So, who exactly was Earl Grey and how did he come to be inextricably linked to tea?
Descended from an Ancient Noble Family
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, was born in 1764 into the House of Grey, an ancient noble family. The ancestral seat associated with Earl Grey’s elite title is Howick Hall in Northumberland. The estate’s website asserts that this aristocrat, also known as Lord Grey, ‘is the most distinguished member’ of his family. A portrait of Earl Grey held by the National Portrait Gallery highlights his strong, yet benevolent gaze.
Despite his privileged background, he was keenly aware of social injustices. When Earl Grey served as the British Prime Minister from 1830-34, he strove to make Britain and its Empire a fairer place. He reformed the electoral system, giving more people the right to vote. He abolished slavery at home and abroad. He put an end to the East India Company’s monopoly of Britain’s trade with China, thereby creating new commercial opportunities.
Specially Blended by a Chinese Mandarin
Earl Grey’s achievements are clear and impressive, but his connection to tea is a grey area (if you’ll pardon the pun). Stories abound about how the nobleman was introduced to bergamot tea and how it came to be known by his name. Some say Earl Grey was rewarded with the blend for saving the life of a Chinese official’s son. Others believe the earl’s friend, botanist Joseph Banks, invented it while trying to create a drink similar to neroli-flavoured Chinese tea.
The story we find most plausible concerns Earl Grey’s decision to curb the monopolising behaviour of the East India Company, which was in fact the first importer of tea from China into Britain. The noble may have received the blend from the Chinese authorities as a token of their appreciation. His actions certainly paved the way for tea (historically an expensive commodity) to become affordable and accessible.
According to Howick Hall’s staff, Earl Grey tea ‘was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin […] to suit the water from the spring at Howick’. The idea was that bergamot would mask the water’s lime content.
Countess Grey Made the Tea Famous
The tea was made famous in high society by Earl Grey’s beloved wife, Mary, Countess Grey, with whom he had ten sons and six daughters (perhaps there was something else in Howick’s water apart from lime!). The blend was then replicated by fashionable tea merchants, such as Jackson’s of Piccadilly and Twinings. The latter kind is still sold and displays the current Earl Grey’s signature on the box. Twinings also makes Lady Grey tea, inspired by Earl Grey’s spouse.
There’s no doubt that being named after the bearers of aristocratic titles gives these teas a certain prestige. Indeed, 14% of adults surveyed by Opinium Research said that drinking Earl Grey suggests you’re posh.
For the ultimate Earl Grey tea experience, head to Howick Hall, where you’ll find The Earl Grey Teahouse. There you can sip this historic blend in a suitably refined setting, perhaps while enjoying another British tradition: the elegant repast known as afternoon tea, which was invented by the Duchess of Bedford during the decade following Earl Grey’s premiership.
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