Fifty Shades of Earl Grey

Wherever you go in the world, there’s an assumption that the most popular British tea is Earl Grey, and to be fair, it probably is one of our best selling teas here at Seibiant. Believe it or not, ‘Earl Grey’ as it applies to tea is not a registered trade mark, which probably accounts for the huge variation in the types and quality of tea which is called Earl Grey.

Let’s start by looking at the history of the tea called Earl Grey, to see how we end up with the tea which we have now. Traditionally Earl Grey was made using Chinese Keemun tea, with the addition of Oil of Bergamot, and was intended to be drunk without milk. More recently though, Earl Grey is made with Sri Lankan tea, which is stronger, and better suited to milk and sugar. Nowadays, ‘Earl Grey’ flavour is added to green tea, rooibos and even oolongs.

Wild Grey
Wild Grey – Chinese Sencha with Earl Grey flavourings

A “Grey’s Tea” is known from the 1850s, but the first known published references to an “Earl Grey” tea are advertisements by Charlton & Co. of Jermyn Street in London in the 1880s. It was assumed to be named after Charles Grey who was the 2nd Earl Grey, and was a British Prime Minister in the 1830s and was the author of the 1932 Reform Bill. It is likely that he was given this tea as a diplomatic gift, but legends abound about this. According to one legend, a grateful Chinese Mandarin whose son was rescued from drowning by one of Lord Grey’s men first presented the blend to the Earl as early as 1803. The tale appears to be unlikely as Lord Grey never set foot in China and the use of bergamot oil to scent tea was then unknown in China. However, this tale is subsequently told (and slightly corrected) on the Twinings website, as “having been presented by an envoy on his return from China”. Jacksons of Piccadilly claim they originated Earl Grey’s Tea, Lord Grey having given the recipe to Robert Jackson & Co. partner George Charlton in 1830. According to the Grey family, the tea was specially blended by a Chinese Mandarin-speaking individual for Lord Grey, to suit the water at Howick Hall, the family seat in Northumberland, using bergamot in particular to offset the preponderance of lime in the local water. Lady Grey used it to entertain in London as a political hostess, and it proved so popular that she was asked if it could be sold to others, which is how Twinings came to market it as a brand.

A survey in 2010 found that a significant minority of people in the UK associate drinking Earl Grey as being ‘posh’!

Earl Grey Blue Lady

There a numerous variations on the Earl Grey theme, including Russian Earl Grey,

Russian Earl Grey
Russian Earl Grey

which includes citrus peels and lemongrass,

Cream Earl Grey

which has vanilla flavouring.

A strange member of the family is Lady Grey; tradition has it that this was the tea that Lady Grey asked Twining’s to produce and market, suggesting that it is older than Earl Grey itself. However, the truth (maybe?) is that Lady Grey was developed in the 20th century for the Scandinavian market, because traditional Earl Grey was too strong for the Scandinavian palate. Lady Grey is indeed a lighter, more citrussy version, which we often struggle to source!

Have fun trying these teas, and let us know what you think!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.