How is tea graded?
Once the tea is processed by drying and rolling, there remains the final stage of grading the tea leaves. When the tea is “made”, it consists of a mixture of leaf pieces of different sizes. It is important that tea be sorted into different sizes in order to produce an evenly steeped cup of tea, as a small piece of tea leaf steeps at a different speed than a large piece. The different sizes of leaf are graded and classified, and are divided into “leaf grades” (made up of the larger pieces) and the “broken leaf grades” (made up of the smaller pieces). The system by which these are named differs from country to country, but the following leaf grades will prove useful:
OP – orange pekoe
Contains larger leaves than FOP, and rarely contains “tip”, the delicate ends of the buds that are considered necessary for a fine tea.
FOP – flowery orange pekoe
Tea made with the bud and first two leaves of a shoot. Made with tender young leaves and the right amount of “tip”.
GFOP – golden flowery orange pekoe
The same as FOP, but made with the very tips of the golden yellow buds.
TGFOP – tippy golden flowery orange pekoe
The same as GFOP, but comprising a higher proportion of tips.
FTGFOP – finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe
The same as TGFOP, but of an even higher quality.
The use of the word “orange” in grading can be confusing, until you learn that it has absolutely nothing to do with the colour of the leaf. It is thought to come form the House of Orange, Holland’s historic royal family, who imported and exported tea- so it now simply denotes a high quality tea. As such, a tea described as Flowery Orange Pekoe will be of a better quality than a plain Flowery Pekoe.
Broken leaf grades follow this same pattern, so you will find “Broken Orange Pekoe”, “Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe”, “Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe” and so forth.
Finally, fannings refer to the very smallest pieces of leaf. Being small, they steep very quickly, and as such, are mostly used in teabags and in food service. They are sometimes referred to as “fines” or “dust”.