Earl Grey Tea: History, Bergamot, and Variations

Earl Grey Tea History

Earl Grey tea…how did the variation of black tea get such a name? This question makes us tea enthusiasts wonder! Even more, the legend (and myths) of the name remain. With that said, the mystery and discussion around the distinctive tea surround a man named Charles Grey.

Born in the mid-1700s, Charles Grey was a well educated English man and aristocrat. The son of General Charles Grey, he inherited the title of Earl after his father’s passing in 1807. From 1830-1834, Charles Grey was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and had a tremendous influence on slavery abolishment. In addition, he carved out major changes in the electoral system of England and Whales. These changes became the Reform Act 1832, only made successful by the participation of Charles Grey.

So what does all of this history about Charles Grey have to do with Earl Grey tea? One version of the legend says that the black tea blended with bergamot oil was given to Charles by a friend as a gift. A second version claims a Chinese mandarin concocted the blend to disguise the taste of lime the Earl detected in his water supply. The versions don’t stop there! It’s also said that the Earl saved the life of a Chinese official’s son and as a token of appreciation, the official sent Grey the black tea blend.

Which Version Is It?

Frustrating as it might be, it’s not a definitive answer to this day. Nearly 200 years after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey’s time, the answer is sought out.  In 2012, The Oxford English Dictionary filed a public appeal to get to the true root of the name for proper documentation. What came of that appeal was numerous accounts, and a whole lot of hearsay, that still didn’t reach a definitive finding. The Oxford English Dictionary unearthed evidence that the name Earl Grey dated post-Earl Grey’s life. In addition, the investigation unearthed an origination to the name involving a man named William Grey. William was a tea merchant based in London who some believed first introduced the black tea to bergamot oil flavoring and advertised it as his “celebrated Grey mixture.” This finding, however, dated back to mid-19th century, long after Charles Grey time.

While many tea enthusiasts would like to have a better answer than that, the mystery is what makes the tea such a profoundly interesting cup to sip on! Since the origin of the name remains vaguely unknown, Earl Grey tea seems to force tea drinkers to pick their cups up and put the myths down.

Bergamot

The distinctive factor of Earl Grey tea is the bergamot oil it’s blended with. The oil is extracted from Bergamot orange, the size of a regular orange yet vibrant green in color to that of a lime. The juice of Bergamot orange is not nearly as sour as a lemon but has bitterness beyond that of a grapefruit. Often used in perfumes and aromatherapy, bergamots scent is pungent and unique. Similar to the Camellia sinensis plant, bergamot orange is loaded with polyphenols. Polyphenols is just a fancy word used to define micronutrients in our diet.

Rumor has it among tea lovers that bergamot oil was originally added to black tea in order to enhance the flavor of the tea. This is because some thought didn’t have the highest quality. While that may or may not be true, June’s Agony thinks the combination is a match made in tea-sipping heaven!

Variations of Earl Grey Tea

Traditionally, Earl Grey tea is the combination of black tea and bergamot. However, several tea companies make different variations. The use green tea instead of black or the addition of herbs like lemongrass for complex flavoring. It’s even popular to remove black tea from the mix and use South African rooibos instead.

You may have overheard an order for a drink called “London Fog”. Ingredients that go into a London Fog drink is freshly steeped Earl Grey tea, vanilla syrup, and steamed milk. Black tea has always gone well with milk for those that like to make their tea more creamy, so this recipe took off and made a name for itself. When rose petals are added to Earl Grey tea, the blend is referred to as “French Earl Grey”. Additionally, many creative bakers use Earl Grey tea in their pastries and confectionaries. The variations are endless!

Before you go crazy with combinations using Earl Grey tea, be sure to taste it on its own. Earl Grey and the bergamot you’ll detect upon drinking will stick with you. No matter how much time has passed, the taste of Earl Grey tea will be something you remember, and recognize.