Ceylon tea is one of the most loved beverages in the world. With a history going back to the British colonial era, Ceylon tea is a household name in many countries. However, when discussing tea there is a lot of terminology that can be confusing. For those of you who are interested in using the correct terms when talking about tea grades and types, I will try to explain without being too complicated. Ceylon tea in Sri Lanka is graded into different categories based on the size and shape of the tea leaf.
There are two main categories of Ceylon tea: whole leaf grade and broken leaf grade. The whole leaf grade has been there since the inception of the tea industry in the country; the Orange Pekoe is the grade for whole leaves. And broken leaves grade consists of some of the best types of Ceylon tea. All tea exporters are required to grade their teas before exporting.
Orange pekoe or OP is a term used in the Western tea trade to describe a particular genre of black teas (orange pekoe grading). Despite a purported Chinese origin, these grading terms are typically used for teas from Sri Lanka, India and countries other than China; they are not generally known within Chinese-speaking countries. The grading system is based upon 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. 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. As such, the phrases "a bud and a leaf" or "a bud and two leaves" are used to describe the "leafiness" of a flush; they are also used interchangeably with pekoe and a leaf or pekoe and two leaves.
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. There are two explanations for its meaning, though neither is definitive:
- The Dutch House of Orange-Nassau, now the royal family, was already the most respected aristocratic family in the days of the Dutch Republic, the Dutch East India Company performed a central role in bringing tea to Europe and may have marketed the tea as "orange" to suggest association with the House of Orange.
- Color: The copper color of a high-quality, oxidized leaf before drying, or the final bright orange color of the dried pekoes in the finished tea may be related to the name. These usually consist of one leaf bud and two leaves covered in fine, downy hair. The orange color is produced when the tea is fully oxidized.
Fannings are small pieces of tea that are left over after higher grades of tea are gathered to be sold. Traditionally these were treated as the rejects of the manufacturing process in making high quality leaf tea like the orange pekoe. Fannings with extremely small particles are sometimes called dusts. Fannings and dusts are considered the lowest grades of tea, separated from broken-leaf teas which have larger pieces of the leaves. However, the fannings of expensive teas can still be more expensive and more flavorful than whole leaves of cheaper teas. Even though they are rejects, fannings produce some of the best teas in the world. The Orange Pekoe is, for example, made of fannings. Fannings are also typically used in most tea bags.
The flowery tea grade consists of bigger leaves, and tips can hardly be seen. Flowery grades carry high prices and are quite expensive to manufacture.
There are several grades within each category.
Whole leaf grades
The grades for whole leaf orthodox black tea are: Ceylon orange pekoe (OP) grades'
- OP1—slightly delicate, long, wiry leaf with the light liquor
- OPA—bold, long leaf tea which ranges from tightly wound to almost open
- OP—main grade, in the middle between OP1 and OPA, can consist of long wiry leaf without tips
- OP Superior—primarily from Indonesia, similar to OP
- Flowery OP—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
- F OP1—as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification
- Golden Flowery OP1—higher proportion of tip than FOP top grade in Milima and Marinyn regions, uncommon in Assam and Darjeeling
- Tippy Golden F OP—the highest proportion of tip, main grade in Darjeeling and Assam
- TGF OP1—as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the TGFOP classification
- Finest TGF OP—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 tips
- SFTGFOP(1)—sometimes used to indicate the very finest
Broken leaf grades
- BT—Broken Tea: Usually a black, open, fleshy leaf that is very bulky. Classification used in Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and some parts of Southern India.
- BP—Broken Pekoe: Most common broken pekoe grade. From Indonesia, Ceylon, 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 and Southern India, as well as in some parts of Kenya.
- BOP—Broken Orange Pekoe: Main broken grade. Prevalent in Assam, Ceylon, Southern India, Java, and China.
- F BOP—Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe: Coarser and broken with some tips. From Assam, Ceylon, 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.
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