In the tea industry, tea leaf grading is the process of evaluating products based on the quality and condition of the tea leaves themselves. The highest grades are referred to as “orange pekoe”, and the lowest as “fannings” or “dust.”
Pekoe tea grades are classified into various qualities, each determined by how many of the adjacent young leaves (two, one, or none) were picked along with the leaf buds. Top-quality pekoe grades consist of only the leaf buds, which are picked using the balls of the fingertips. Fingernails and mechanical tools are not used to avoid bruising.
When crushed to make bagged teas, the tea is referred to as “broken”, as in “broken orange pekoe” (BOP). These lower grades include fannings and dust, which are tiny remnants created in the sorting and crushing processes.
Orange pekoe is referred to as “OP”. The grading scheme also contains categories higher than OP, which is determined primarily by leaf wholeness and size.
Orange pekoe, also spelled pecco, or OP is a term used in the Western tea trade to describe a particular genre of black teas (orange pekoe grading). These grading terms are typically used for teas from Sri Lanka, India and countries other than China. This grading system is not generally known within Chinese-speaking countries and never applied to Chinese teas. The grading system is based on the size of processed and dried black tea leaves.
The tea industry uses the term orange pekoe to describe a basic, medium-grade black tea consisting of many whole tea leaves of a specific size. However, it is popular in some regions (such as North America) to use the term as a description of any generic black tea that does not originate in China. Within this system, the teas that receive the highest grades are obtained from new flushes (pickings). This includes the terminal leaf bud along with a few of the youngest leaves. Grading is based on the ‘size’ of the individual leaves and flushes, which is determined by their ability to fall through the screens of special meshes ranging from 8–30 mesh. This also determines the ‘wholeness’, or level of breakage, of each leaf, which is also part of the grading system. Although these are not the only factors used to determine quality, the size and wholeness of the leaves will have the greatest influence on the taste, clarity, and brewing time of the tea.
When used outside the context of black-tea grading, the term “pekoe” (or, occasionally, orange pekoe) describes the unopened terminal leaf bud (tips) in tea flushes.
The origin of the word “pekoe” is uncertain. One explanation is it is derived from the transliterated mispronunciation of the Amoy (Xiamen) dialect word for a Chinese tea known as “white down/hair.“ This is how “pekoe” is listed by Rev. Robert Morrison (1782–1834) in his Chinese dictionary (1819) as one of the seven sorts of black tea “commonly known by Europeans.” This refers to the down-like white “hairs” on the leaf and also to the youngest leaf buds. Another hypothesis is that the term derives from the Chinese báihuā “white flower” (Chinese: 白花; pinyin: báihuā; pe̍h-hoe), and refers to the bud content of pekoe tea.
Sir Thomas Lipton, the 19th-century British tea magnate, is widely credited with popularizing, if not inventing, the term “orange pekoe,” which seems to have no Chinese precedents, for Western markets. The “orange” in orange pekoe is sometimes mistaken to mean the tea has been flavored with orange, orange oils, or is otherwise associated with oranges. However, the word “orange” is unrelated to the tea’s flavor.
Choppy contains many leaves of various sizes. Fannings are small particles of tea leaves used almost exclusively in tea bags. Flowery consists of large leaves typically plucked in the second or third flush with an abundance of tips. Golden flowery includes very young tips or buds (usually golden in colour) that were picked early in the season. Tippy includes an abundance of leaf tips or buds.
The grades for whole leaf orthodox black tea are: Ceylon orange pekoe (OP) grades
- Orange Pekoe, OP1—slightly delicate, long, wiry leaf with light-colored tea liquor
- Orange Pekoe, OP —main grade, can consist of long wiry leaf without tips
- OP Superior—primarily from Indonesia, similar to OP
- Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) — high-quality tea with a long leaf and few tips, considered the second grade in Assam, Dooars, and Bangladesh teas, but the first grade in China when applied
- Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 (FOP1) —as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification
- Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 (GFOP1) — higher proportion of leaf tips or buds than FOP. Top grade in Milima and Marinyn regions, uncommon in Assam and Darjeeling
- Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) — the highest proportion of leaf tips or buds, main grade in Darjeeling and Assam
- Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 (TGFOP1) — as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the TGFOP classification
- Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) — highest quality grade (Note: “Special” is occasionally substituted for “Finest”, with a number 1 at the end to indicate the very finest), often hand processed and produced at only the best plantations, roughly one quarter leaf tips or buds
A joke among tea aficionados is that “FTGFOP” stands for “Far Too Good For Ordinary People.”
- BT—Broken Tea: Usually a black, open, fleshy leaf that is very bulky. Classification used in Sumatra, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and some parts of Southern India.
- BP—Broken Pekoe: Most common broken pekoe grade. From Indonesia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Assam and Southern India.
- BPS—Broken Pekoe Souchong: Term for broken pekoe in Assam and Darjeeling.
- FP—Flowery Pekoe: High-quality pekoe. Usually coarser with a fleshier, broken leaf. Produced in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Southern India, as well as in some parts of Kenya.
- BOP—Broken Orange Pekoe: Main broken grade. Prevalent in Assam, Ceylon(Sri Lanka), Southern India, Java, and China.
- F BOP—Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe: Coarser and broken with some tips. From Assam, Ceylon(Sri Lanka), Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh. In South America coarser, black broken.
- F BOP F—Finest Broken Orange Pekoe Flowery: The finest broken orange pekoe. Higher proportion of tips. Mainly from Ceylon’s “low districts.”
- G BOP—Golden Broken Orange Pekoe: Second grade tea with uneven leaves and few tips.
- GF BOP1—Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: As above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the GFBOP classification.
- TGF BOP1—Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: High-quality leaves with a high proportion of tips. Finest broken First Grade Leaves in Darjeeling and some parts of Assam.