Tea Grades: What Do They Mean and How Are They Determined?

Have you ever seen a label on your tea package that reads “SFTGFOP1” and wondered what it means? Well, it turns out that this jumble of letters and numbers is actually a grade of tea, one of many classifications that can be found on gourmet tea packages. However, these grades can often be confusing and misunderstood by consumers.

In this lesson, we’ll explore how these grades are determined, what they signify, and how they relate to the taste and quality of the tea. It’s important to note that tea grades are not standardized worldwide and can vary by country, and they only reflect the size and visual appearance of the tea leaves, not necessarily their flavor or overall quality. So, let’s dive into the fascinating world of tea grading and learn how to apply it to our love of tea.

British tea grading system

The grading of tea can vary from country to country. In the American tea market, the British system is commonly used for grading Orthodox teas. The starting point for grading most Orthodox teas is Pekoe (P), which is a relatively whole leaf tea. It’s important to note that “whole leaf” in this context doesn’t mean a perfect, unbroken leaf from the bush, as black teas are rolled and oxidized. Pekoe is actually a fairly large leaf. As the leaf size decreases, tea makers add modifiers to describe the leaf in more detail. For example, FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) means some of the leaves look open like crushed flower petals, while GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) indicates there are lots of golden leaves in the tea. Generally, the more descriptors there are, the higher the quality of the tea. After the modifiers, even more letters are added to signify even higher quality. The example SFTGFOP1 actually stands for Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1.

CTC teas are also graded using this system, but the grades available are limited because these teas are processed differently. They are shredded by a machine and rolled into little balls, resulting in a different leaf shape than Orthodox teas. It’s worth noting that larger leaf size in Orthodox tea doesn’t necessarily mean better quality than CTC tea.

These grading terms are typically used for black teas from India and Sri Lanka, as well as a few Chinese teas. In China, the grading system is specific to leaf appearance, but it differs significantly from the British system.

Chinese tea grading system

When it comes to Chinese teas, they are typically numbered based on their quality, with the highest grade being labeled as number one and so on. However, there is no standard for how many grades there are, and most people usually deal with grades up to seven or nine.

The Chinese grading system is based on the style and shape of the tea leaves and how perfectly they were executed during production, rather than on the quality of the flavor. It is important to note that the best-looking tea leaves are not always the ones that taste the best.

In addition to numbering, the Chinese system also sometimes refers to the season of harvest. For example, Pre-qingming Dragonwell (Lọngjing) tea is harvested before the rains, and certain seasons tend to yield better quality flavors than others. In such cases, the season of harvest is called out.

Chinese tea names are often poetic and descriptive of the leaf, such as ‘hairy crab’, ‘longevity eyebrow’, and ‘red snail’. Some names also indicate the place where the tea was grown, such as Yunnan, a well-known tea province in China and the birthplace of all tea.

Just like in the British system, a name like ‘Temple of Heaven Gunpowder 1′ indicates the type of tea and the quality of the leaf production, but it does not necessarily guarantee the flavor quality.

Japan and Taiwan grading system

When it comes to grading tea in Japan, the size of the leaf isn’t the determining factor. Instead, most Japanese teas are blended in the final stages of production, with lots of varying sizes mixed to ensure consistency in the cup. You might notice that Sencha and Gyokuro teas contain lots of fine particles in the leaf, but this isn’t a sign of damage; rather, these pieces are carefully blended back in to give the tea a brothy, savory flavor.

Meanwhile, Taiwan is unique in that it grades its tea based on both flavor and appearance. Although the government-run operation responsible for this ended years ago, citizens still use the same system today, which includes aroma, dry leaf appearance, and flavor as factors. This culture takes tea very seriously and even holds regional tea competitions where the winning oolongs can fetch extremely high prices.

Despite these grading systems, the most important thing is to taste the tea for yourself and trust your own opinion. Also, it’s important to buy from reputable tea sellers who can tell you about their teas and encourage your feedback. Keep in mind that all grading systems are arbitrary, as the personal opinions of graders and variations in machinery can affect the results. Ultimately, for importers and exporters, good communication and relationships are key to ensuring that everyone is getting the right tea for their needs.

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