The second Earl Grey of Howick (1764-1845) was one of the leading British statesmen of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century. Charles Grey, a member of the Whig Party1, became a Member of Parliament in 1786, at the age of 22. Within ten years of becoming an MP, Earl Grey became First Lord of the Admiralty, and was thus in charge of the British Navy. He went on to become Foreign Secretary, and campaigned against the slave trade in Africa. In 1830, he became Prime Minister, and remained as PM until 1834.
As Prime Minister, Earl Grey presided over the introduction of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which brought the vote to most male British citizens. The following year, his government abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. But despite these historic achievements, Earl Grey's name is best known today because of the delicious, delicate, fragrant beverage named in his honour.
There are differing accounts of the origin of Earl Grey tea, but the most popular goes as follows. During his reign as Prime Minister, Earl Grey sent a diplomatic mission to China, where one of the envoys Grey sent saved the life of a Chinese Mandarin. In gratitude, the Mandarin sent the Earl a specially-scented tea. The blend became popular in Britain, and came to be known as Earl Grey tea.
Earl Grey tea isn't for everyone. For many, it's an acquired taste. If you're used to the robust English Breakfast blends of tea, then the delicacy and distinctive aroma of Earl Grey can take some getting used to. But more than 150 years after the death of Earl Grey, the brew to which he gave his name remains hugely popular. It's second only to English Breakfast as the world's best-selling blend of tea.
The Ingredients of Earl Grey Tea
Despite its reputed Chinese origins, Earl Grey tea doesn't contain China tea. It is a blend of Indian and Sri Lankan black teas, flavoured with oil of bergamot2. The oil is extracted from the peel of the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), which is grown mainly in the Calabria region of Italy. Bergamot oil is also commonly used in aromatherapy.
Unlike green teas, black teas undergo a full fermentation process, which causes the leaves to turn black and gives them their flavour. To make Earl Grey tea, famous Indian black teas like Assam and Darjeeling are mixed with those from Sri Lanka.
Lady Grey Tea
Lady Grey tea is a variation on the more famous Earl Grey blend. It consists of green China tea scented with oil of bergamot, lemon peel and orange peel.
How to Serve Earl Grey Tea
Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy, was an Earl Grey tea fan, and he had very definite views about how it should be served. These views are set out in full, and illustrated with a very nice animation, in his h2g2 entry on tea. In the entry, Mr Adams strongly advocates adding Earl Grey tea to milk, rather than milk to Earl Grey tea.
However, as the entry acknowledges, many people prefer to enjoy Earl Grey without milk and with a slice of lemon. They find that the tang of citrus that comes from the oil of bergamot makes Earl Grey tea particularly suited to being served black with lemon.
Some others prefer their Earl Grey on its own, with nothing added. It's all a matter of personal taste. But one thing that most Earl Grey enthusiasts can probably agree upon is that the tea should be left to stand for at least two or three minutes after the boiling water has been added, in order for its full flavour to emerge. Resist that tempting aroma for a couple of minutes, and let your Earl Grey tea brew. It's well worth the wait.
Earl Grey Tea is the brew of choice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard aboard the Enterprise-D.