What is it about Earl Grey tea that makes it the most popular tea in the world? Having been a purveyor of tea for 15 years, it has always stymied me. There are so-o-o many tasty teas out there, but Earl Grey lovers want Earl Grey tea and nothing more. Where did this tea come from and how did it achieve such loyalty?
For me, the history and legend of Earl Grey is far more interesting than the tea. Born March 13, 1764, Charles Grey was the second son of General Charles Grey of Southwick, County Durham, England. With an impressive education at Eton and Trinity College, he found himself attracted to politics and, at the age of 22, became one of the youngest members elected to Parliament. With his youthful, idealistic beliefs and strong political stands, he soon became a prominent figure in the Whig party. Although viewed as extreme at the time, Grey was able to lead many reforms over the next few years. In 1806 the Whig party was disbanded, and although Grey remained very active in politics, it wasn’t until 1830, when the Whigs were returned to power, that Grey was elected as Prime Minister.
Described as a man of many contradictions (classic Aries), headstrong, ambitious and impulsive, yet indecisive, pessimistic and at times and foolish, Charles married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby in 1794. On the surface, Grey appeared to be a devoted husband and father with a family numbering 15 children (six daughters and ten sons). Prior to his marriage, and some say throughout, he was a notorious ladies’ man. His most public affair was with the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, with whom he produced a child in 1792.
Among the many impressive pieces of legislation that Grey’s ministry was able to accomplish were:
- the Abolition of Slavery Act
- the Factory Act
- the ending of the East India Company monopoly
- ending the farm workers ‘Swing Riots’
- a state-funded grant for the building of schools
- allowing marriages to take place in non-Conformist chapels
- the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act reforming child labor laws
Needless to say, this man was an impressive figure who made quite a contribution to England’s political environment and culture, but when and where did the “tea” connection come from?
Let’s start at the beginning …..
The first chests of tea arrived from China at the docks in London in 1645. It was, at this time, a fashionable trend among the aristocratic elite to enjoy this exotic beverage. Over the next 100 years, Great Britain and the new America became obsessed with “tea”. It had gone from being the beverage of the upper class to the daily drink of commoners. The East India Company, one of the largest financial monopolies in the world, was formed by Queen Elizabeth I to handle all the trade with China, primarily the ‘tea’ trade.
The consumption of tea by the Brits had increased from 1 million pounds per year to over 20 million pounds per year. To pay for this tea, the East India Company offered the Chinese textiles. The Chinese were far more advanced in manufacturing than the British and did not want such inferior goods. They wanted to be paid in silver bullion. At the beginning, this wasn’t a problem for the British because silver was in great supply; but with the loss of the American colonies, access to South America, where the silver was mined, was becoming more and more difficult. The British had some opium plantations in India and soon realized the answer to their “tea” problem was to increase their opium trade with the Chinese.
This was about the time when Lord Grey came into power. But how Grey became associated with the tea, especially one named for him, is unclear. There are many legends and discussions, none of which have been verified …..
- The most familiar is that Lord Grey traveled to China, and during the trip, he, or one of his servants, saved the life of a son of a Chinese mandarin from drowning and was given this tea blend as a “thank you”.
- Another similar version of this tale has the son of an Indian Raja being rescued from a tiger by one of Lord Grey’s servants. In both tales, Lord Grey was given the tea as a way of saying “thank you”.
- One story tells how this tea blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot fruits were shipped together from China and the tea absorbed the fruit flavor during shipping.
- Another story says the tea was named after Charles by Jackson’s of Piccadilly, who blended the tea “to meet the wishes of the former Earl of Grey”.
The legends also describe Lord Grey as having enjoyed this tea so much, he asked a London tea merchant to try to replicate the flavor. The Prime Minister being so pleased, he allowed this custom-blended tea to be sold to select customers. Interestingly, in 1837 (three years after Lord Grey left political life), London tea merchants, Brocksop & Company faced criminal charges for adding bergamot to lower quality tea in order to misrepresent it as a superior product (at a higher price). Would Lord Grey really have endorsed an inferior tea? I highly doubt it.
My theory is …. the early founders of London tea salons, Thomas Twining and Robert Jackson were both shameless self-promoters and marketeers. With British tea shops becoming very popular and competitive, they had to do something to draw attention to their shops and the teas they sold. What better way than to create a specialty blends in honor of a dignitary perhaps or member of the royal family? The “Queen Victoria” blend, “Royal Wedding” blend, and possibly the “Earl Grey” blend.
Twining and Jackson both took credit for creating the now familiar blend which uses the natural oils from the peel of the bergamot fruit to flavor the Chinese blend of black leaves, but will we ever know? What we do know is that this tea, which bears the name of the Prime Minister of England, is one of the most popular flavored teas in the world today (although I don’t know why).
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Resources: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. , Wikipedia, the Victorian Web, The Book of Tea by Anthony Burgess, TEA by Lydia Gautier, TEA by Roy Moxham