The Origins of Earl Grey Tea

Posted by Darren Hartford on

Bergamot Orange watercolor illustration (Citrus Bergamia), by L. Osbeck

The origin of “who first put leaf to water” is completely unknown to culinary historians. Before the mid-nineteenth century, botanists failed to decipher tea’s formula; however, many tales provide what human record does not. Like all teas, Earl Grey’s “distinctive quality… comes from essential oils that leach flavor and caffeine into a cup of hot water.”[1] The exact source of the Earl Grey blend has remained a mystery, except that it is based on Chinese tea. Unlike other Chinese blends, Earl Grey tea contains the flavoring agent, bergamot oil. Before bergamot became tied to the Earl Grey blend, it had a bad reputation as being a taste enhancer for lower quality teas. In England, the first known reference of bergamot oil used as a flavoring ingredient for tea was in 1824.[2]

Bergamot oil comes from the rind of a bergamot, a type of Seville orange. The oil from the rind has an aroma similar to various mints in North America. The name of this new fruit, “Bergamot,” is an English word that first appeared in 1696 after where it is said to have first grown, Bergamo in northern Italy.[3] By the 1800s, bergamot oranges made their way to China.[4]

For the Chinese, the mystery of the tea leaf’s start in hot water can be explained by the story of how the mythical emperor, Shennong, discovered tea. As such, the Chinese constantly sought to change their tea in order to beat their competitors’ tea in foreign markets. When Indian tea became a competitor, the Chinese used iron Ferro cyanide, or Prussian blue, a powder found in paint, to chemically dye their tea to increase its attraction. Likewise, when packaging their tea, Chinese manufacturers used perfumed plants like jasmine and bergamot to scent the teas.[5] Although Earl Grey was a Chinese invention, the tea was never exported as a product of China.

The tale of Earl Grey tea’s beginning has been altered over time and now there are multiple versions. As one tale of the legendary and popular tea goes, a tea merchant from China made the blend especially for Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl of Grey, in the 1830s. Apparently, the British diplomat received the recipe for the blend as a gift from the Chinese mandarin as a thank-you for saving his life.[6] The merchant, an “unidentified person in China,” is said to have flavored the tea with bergamot oranges before carrying the blend as a gift to England.[7] Shortly thereafter, the tea spread among merchants and was acquired for commercial sales, becoming the “epitome… of the genteel end of the British tea spectrum.”[8]

Another rendition of the tea’s origin states that it was custom blended by a Chinese mandarin to compliment the 2nd Earl of Grey’s well water on his estate, Howick. Accordingly, the tea master used bergamot in the recipe to soften the taste of lime that was in the water. The Earl’s wife, Lady Grey, began serving the Chinese tea master’s new recipe exclusively when she entertained as a political hostess. This was quickly followed by her asking British merchants in London if it could be recreated and marketed to London society who adored the recipe and then made it famous.[9]



London, 1884 Morning Post, June 19, p. 8

The details may seem minute, but fascinating nonetheless, as one may never solve the mystery of one of the world’s most recognizable and tremendously popular teas, Earl Grey. This tea was certainly made popular in England, but its roots are always in China. One cannot forget that Earl Grey tea is in fact, a Chinese anomaly. Historically, China is the origin of many scented teas that were first created and then produced by early Chinese tea masters before becoming highly esteemed worldwide. As one of the most classic “scented” teas, Earl Grey was an “exotic new flavor of the Far East” that was distinctive to the talents of China’s tea masters. In the world of tea, the factual account of the real Earl of Grey who drank this tea, and the first tea company to use bergamot to scent tea, remains subject to debate. [10]

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, 1828. Painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

[1] Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History (New York: Penguin Group, 2010), 86-88.
[2] “Early Grey: The result of the OED Appeal on Earl Grey Tea,” Oxford University Press, last modified 2016, accessed July 20, 2016,
[3] John Ayto, The Diner’s Dictionary: Word Origins of Food and Drink (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 29, 123.
[4] “Bergamot Orange: Citrus bergamia,” Herbs2000, last modified 2016, accessed July 26, 2016,
[5] Ibid., 87, 90, 191.
[6] John Ayto, The Diner’s Dictionary, 123.
[7] “Bergamot Orange: Citrus bergamia,” Herbs2000.
[8] John Ayto, The Diner’s Dictionary, 123.
[9] “Earl Grey: History of the 2nd Earl,” Howick Hall Gardens, accessed July 21, 2016,
[10] Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2007), 100, 101, 104.