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Heart to Heart: The History of Earl Grey Tea

Dear Big Heart Tea Co., 

I used to think I was the world’s biggest Earl Grey tea enthusiast. Until, that is, I discovered your Edith Grey tea. Game-changing! It’s so rich and bright and earthy all at once … It’s everything I could possibly hope for in an Earl Grey tea and more. Plus, I love the idea of a female-forward variation. 

Anyhow. This isn’t just fan mail. My question is … What is the secret behind your Edith Grey? How did you make a classic tea even better? 



Dear Edith,

Awww, we’re blushing! We’ve gotta say, we’re pretty proud of our Edith Grey tea. We’re glad you love it as much as we do! 

As for the “secret”? Well…

Sorry to disappoint, but there is no secret behind what makes our Edith Grey tea so special. It’s a simple brew — and that’s what makes it so magical. 

Here’s the thing. A lot of Earl Grey teas out there kinda suck. They’re made with sub-standard black tea, and rely on bergamot to make the tea flavorful. Some teas marketed as Earl Grey don’t contain real bergamot at all, but rely on artificial flavoring. 

We don’t take shortcuts. Our Edith Grey starts and ends with the good stuff. Single-origin black tea is hand-picked from the Satemwa family tea estate in the Shire Highlands of Malawi — and gets even better with an infusion of bergamot oil and our special added touch, a soupçon of delicate red rose. The finished result? A tea that’s sturdy yet feminine, with a little air of mystery about it. There’s a reason why we describe it as “an epic love story in a cup.” 

But — credit where credit is due. Our Edith Grey wouldn’t exist if Earl Grey hadn’t come before. And where Earl Grey tea came from is actually a pretty interesting story. Care to hear? 

(Go ahead — brew yourself a cup of Edith Grey. We’ll wait.) 

What is Earl Grey Tea? 

The story of Earl Grey tea has a lot of layers. Before we get into it, let’s get clear on what Earl Grey tea is (and what it isn’t). 

Earl Grey is a famous tea brew made from black tea scented with bergamot. Bergamot, in case ya didn’t know, is a type of citrus fruit. Also called the bergamot orange, it’s roughly the size of an orange, but with a yellow or green peel. Likely the hybrid of a lemon and bitter orange, the bergamot is native to southern Italy. This also explains the name — it’s derived from the Italian word bergamotto, which might refer to the town of Bergamo — or it could be rooted in the Turkish term beg armudu, or “prince’s pear.” (Bergamot also grows in other favorable climates like Turkey — as well as Southeast Asia, and Morocco, to name a few exotic locales.)

Earl Grey tea is composed of black tea leaves scented with bergamot oil extracted from the rind of the fruit. The result? A tea with citrus notes that bounce off the black tea’s richness for a bright yet earthy brew that tastes great plain, with milk, or with sweetener.  

But here’s a fun fact. While Earl Grey has an aristocratic name and a reputation as decidedly stately and posh tea, it hasn’t always been that way. Some say that the original motivation to add bergamot to black tea was to mask the flavor of low-quality black tea. 

Over time, that perception has changed. While there are certainly low-quality Earl Grey teas out there, there are also many exceptional variations on the market. (We’re biased, of course, but we think that our Edith Grey is among the best.) 

  1. Now that you’ve got an understanding of what Earl Grey tea is, let’s dig into its fascinating story. 

The Earl Behind Earl Grey Tea 

Was there an actual Earl Grey? You bet your bottom tea leaf. Most people agree that the Earl behind the tea was Earl Charles Grey, who served as British Prime Minister in the 1830s. 

You’ll be delighted to know that he was a surprisingly un-stuffy aristocrat. Among his achievements while in office? He helped abolish British slavery, reform child labor laws, and worked to improve voting rights. 

That’s cool … But what the heck does he have to do with tea? That’s where things start to get a little hazy.

The History of Earl Grey Tea: Choose Your Own Adventure 

As is the case with many food and drink items, the origins of Earl Grey tea are somewhat hazy. In fact, you might say it’s “steeped” in mystery. (Hehe)

That said, there are plenty of fun theories out there. Let’s take a tour of the best ones, shall we? 

Earl Grey Backstory #1: The Rescue 

One widely-told story behind Earl Grey tea involves Charles Grey bravely rescuing a young Chinese man from drowning. The man’s father was so grateful that he presented the blend to the Earl in the early 1800s, and it was forever after known as Earl Grey tea. 

There are several variations on this general story framework, including a version where Grey was presented with the bergamot-scented blend by an envoy upon his return from China. 

Unfortunately, the story may be as full of holes as Swiss cheese. For one, many historical sources state that Grey never actually went to China. Additionally, where on earth would a Chinese man have gotten his hands on bergamot oil in the early 1800s? The fruit and oil were from Italy, and were unlikely to have been used in China at that time. 

Earl Grey Backstory #2: Political Perk 

Not convinced by the dramatic rescue story above? Try this one on for size.

Another school of thought behind Earl Grey tea’s origins is that Earl Grey received the tea as a thank-you gift to acknowledge his part in ending the East India Tea Company’s monopoly on trade between Britain and China. Historically, this could track — the EIC lost its monopoly in 1833, which is in line with Grey’s reign as British Prime Minister. 

Earl Grey Backstory #3: A Tea Fit for an Aristocrat

Once upon a time, what is today Howick Hall Gardens and Arboretum acted as the ancestral seat of the Earls Grey. 

According to their website, the tea was actually a clever solution to mask the flavor of the spring-sourced water at Howick, which had a distinct lime flavor. To make the water more palatable, a Chinese Mandarin (it’s unclear if it was a worker on the grounds) blended tea with bergamot. The creation was well-received, and Lady Grey is said to have served the tea frequently.

The tea proved so popular that people wanted to buy it — and that’s the supposed story of how a major British tea manufacturer came to market the tea. 

Of course, as the story opines, the “unbusinesslike” Grey family didn’t have the wherewithal to trademark the tea, so they never received royalties.

Earl Grey Backstory #4: A Proprietary Secret 

According to another account, Earl Grey’s origins lie with the once-renowned London tea house Jacksons of Piccadilly, which has since been absorbed by another big British tea manufacturer. The house claimed that it originated Earl Grey tea after the family shared the recipe with the Jackson family in the early 1830s. According to the Jacksons, the proprietary recipe has never left their care.

Earl Grey Backstory #5: There Was No Earl Behind the Tea at All 

Not happy with any of the above stories? You’re not the only one. Some people say the name “Earl” was attached to the tea at a much later date than its creation. 

For example, some adverts from circa 1850 reference “Grey’s Tea” or “Grey’s mixture,” which seem to refer to a tea merchant named William Grey. 

Others say that calling the tea “Earl Grey” was simply a means of elevating what was essentially a poor-quality tea. Recall that earlier, we talked about how early versions of Earl Grey might have employed bergamot to enhance the flavor of low-quality black tea. Since the first known mention of tea flavored with bergamot was in 1824, it could have been a matter of timing — Earl Grey might simply have been a posh name to attach to the tea and make it fetch a higher price.

The Bottom Line on Earl Grey Tea…

While Earl Grey tea’s origins may be steeped in mystery, there’s no doubt about the fact that it’s a foundational and mightily popular brew. But “traditional” Earl Grey tea isn’t your only option. 

It’s hard to improve a classic, but we’ve tried our best with our Edith Grey tea, a high-quality blend made with single-origin black tea, bergamot, and rose. See for yourself how these three simple ingredients come together to make an energizing yet grounding blend — try Edith Grey today! 


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