A Short History of Earl Grey Tea

Earl Grey is made from black tea and bergamot citrus extract.

© Shutterstock


Earl Grey is made from black tea and bergamot citrus extract.

© Shutterstock

A potted history of Earl Grey

1830 marked two significant moments in British history; it was the year that Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, became Prime Minister and it was the year the lawn mower was invented by Englishman Edwin Budding. Suffice it to say, the history of the lawnmower is clear cut whilst that of Earl Grey tea is a little more opaque.

The origin of tea

As with all teas, including flavoured teas such as Earl Grey, its origin lies in China. The Chinese have flavoured water with leaves for well over 4,000 years. Tea brewed from Camellia Sinensis leaves became popular during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but it was to be another 1,610 years before Earl Grey tea would be invented and marketed.


The Chinese have flavoured water with leaves for well over 4,000 years

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Bergamot boost

Earl Grey tea was originally Chinese black tea flavoured with bergamot oil. Bergamot trees grow almost exclusively in Calabria in southern Italy. They are a natural hybrid of sweet lime and bitter orange. The fruit is about the size of an orange but with the colour of a lime.

Significantly, the flesh and juice of bergamots are extremely acidic, so the fruit is predominantly grown for its zest from which bergamot oil is extracted. This oil is added to the dried black tea leaves to give Earl Grey its distinctive lifted-floral scent and sweet-citrus flavour.


The invention of the tea bag in the twentieth century has changed our tea-drinking habits

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The 2nd Earl Grey

Several brands lay claim to marketing the first Earl Grey tea and there are numerous stories about the involvement of Charles Grey 2nd Earl Grey, who was prime minister from 1830 to 1834.

The official story is that he reportedly received a diplomatic present of tea that was flavoured with bergamot oil. According to the UK government website, the tea became so popular that Charles Grey asked British tea merchants to recreate it.

Another story is that the tea was in fact created to suit the lime-rich water at Howick Hall, the Grey family seat in Northumberland on England's northeast coast.


 A stamp printed in UK shows Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey.

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Flavour to enhance or disguise?

There may be a more cynical angle to the development of Earl Grey tea. As with all valuable commodities, fake and illicit tea imports were rife. Tea was so popular it was heavily taxed; indeed it was the British tea tax in America that saw the dumping of tea leaves into Boston Harbour which led to the American Revolution barely sixty years earlier.

By the early 1800s, tea was in demand, smuggling was an issue – and so was the quality of some teas. What better way to disguise your ‘fannings’ or dust than by flavouring them with something else? However, regardless of however humble (or not) its beginnings, Earl Grey tea quickly became very fashionable.

Earl Grey has a distinctive lifted-floral scent and sweet-citrus flavour

© Shutterstock

Essential oils

Perfumed, fragrant, scented, floral – all these words apply to Earl Grey tea and rightly so, because, aside from tea merchants, another industry uses bergamot oil – the fragrance market. The perfume houses are meticulous in their market research and there are plenty of studies showing essential oils and perfumes help relaxation, ease tension and assist in the production of hormones that release anxiety; citrus aromas in particular are known to reduce anxiousness. 

So next time you feel het up or stressed out why not make yourself a pot of Earl Grey tea and relax. Better still, take it outside and admire your beautifully cut lawn…and you won’t be worried if you see it needs mowing!


Relax your mind and soul with some tea

© Shutterstock


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