Tea leaf grading is an important process in the tea industry, used to assess the quality and condition of tea leaves. Different tea grades are determined by various factors, such as the number of adjacent young leaves picked along with the leaf buds, the absence of bruising, and the size and wholeness of the leaves.
The highest quality tea grades for Western and South Asian teas are called “orange pekoe”, while the lowest grades are referred to as “fannings” or “dust”. Grades of tea are often better suited to certain varieties of tea, with white tea usually processed from the buds or shoots of the tea plant.
When tea leaves are crushed to make bagged teas, they are referred to as “broken”, as in “broken orange pekoe” or “BOP”. This lower grade includes fannings and dust, which are small remnants produced during the sorting and crushing processes.
Grading schemes also exist beyond orange pekoe (OP), with categories determined by leaf wholeness and size. Broken, fannings, and dust orthodox teas have slightly different grading systems than CTC teas, which consist of mechanically rendered uniform fannings.
To maintain the quality of the tea, top-quality pekoe grades are picked using the balls of fingertips, avoiding the use of fingernails or mechanical tools that can cause bruising. The tea grading system plays an essential role in helping consumers understand and appreciate the varying levels of quality and taste present in the tea market.
Grading by size
In the tea industry, grading tea based on size is an essential part of the process. The size of the tea leaves or broken pieces determines how the tea is prepared and ultimately impacts the strength of the resulting beverage. Larger leaves or pieces generally require a longer steeping time and more tea by volume to produce the same strength beverage. Therefore, size plays a critical role in determining the quality of tea.
Grading by appearance
Teas can also be graded based on their appearance. It’s easier to grade whole leaves based on their visual characteristics than broken pieces.
Orange pekoe is a term used by the tea industry to describe a medium-grade black tea made up of many whole tea leaves of a particular size. However, in some areas such as North America, the term is often used more broadly to refer to any generic black tea, even though it may be marketed to consumers as a specific variety of black tea.
The highest quality orange pekoe teas are made from new flushes, which include the terminal leaf bud and a few of the youngest leaves. These teas are graded based on the size of the individual leaves and flushes, which is determined by their ability to fall through special mesh screens ranging from 8-30 mesh. The size and wholeness of the leaves are the most significant factors in determining the quality of the tea, as they affect the taste, clarity, and brewing time. However, other factors may also play a role in assessing the quality of the tea.
Fannings and dust
Fannings, the small particles of tea that are left over after higher grades of teas are gathered to be sold, have a fascinating history. Originally considered the rejects of the manufacturing process in making high-quality leaf tea like orange pekoe, fannings were traditionally viewed as low-quality tea. Fannings with extremely small particles were graded as “Dust” and were even lower in quality than fannings.
When it comes to tea, not all leaves are created equal. Depending on the size, shape, and quality of the leaves, different types of tea are produced. Tea grading is the process of evaluating and classifying tea leaves based on their size, shape, and overall quality. Understanding tea grading is essential to finding and enjoying the perfect cup of tea. Here are the different types of tea leaves:
Choppy tea leaves are characterized by their uneven, broken shape. They contain many leaves of various sizes, making them suitable for strong, bold tea blends. Choppy tea is often used in blends for milk tea or chai, where the tea’s strong taste can hold up against the milk and spices.
Fannings are the smallest particles of tea leaves and are often used exclusively in tea bags. These tiny pieces are the result of sifting through the larger tea leaves, making them cheaper but not as high in quality. Fannings make a quick and convenient cup of tea but are not ideal for brewing loose leaf tea.
Flowery tea leaves are characterized by their large size and are typically plucked in the second or third flush with an abundance of tips. These leaves are considered high quality and produce a light, delicate flavor. Flowery tea is often used for white and green teas, as well as Darjeeling tea.
Golden flowery tea includes very young tips or buds that were picked early in the season. These buds are typically golden in color, hence the name. The golden color indicates that the leaves were picked before they fully opened and oxidized. These buds produce a delicate, light flavor that is prized by tea connoisseurs.
Tippy tea leaves are characterized by an abundance of tips. These tips are the young, tender buds that are picked early in the tea harvest. Tippy leaves are considered high quality and produce a light, delicate flavor. They are often used in high-end tea blends, such as Assam tea.
- Orange Pekoe (OP): This is the main grade of tea consisting of long wiry leaves without tips.
- Orange Pekoe 1 (OP1): This is a more delicate version of OP, with long, wiry leaves that produce a light liquor.
- Orange Pekoe A (OPA): This grade consists of long leaf tea that ranges from tightly wound to almost open. It is bolder than OP.
- Orange Pekoe Superior (OPS): This grade is primarily from Indonesia and is similar to OP.
- Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP): This high-quality tea consists of long leaves with few tips. It is considered the second grade in Assam, Dooars, and Bangladesh teas, but the first grade in China.
- Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 (FOP1): This grade is limited to only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification.
- Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP): This grade has a higher proportion of tips than FOP. It is the top grade in the Milima and Marinyn regions, but uncommon in Assam and Darjeeling.
- Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP): This grade has the highest proportion of tips and is the main grade in Nepal, Darjeeling, and Assam.
- Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 (TGFOP1): This grade is limited to only the highest quality leaves in the TGFOP classification.
- Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP): This is the highest quality grade.
- Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 (FTGFOP1): This is limited to only the highest quality leaves in the FTGFOP classification.
- Special Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (STGFOP): This is a special classification of the highest quality tea.
- Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP): This is also a special classification of the highest quality tea.
The highest quality whole-leaf grade is generally considered to be the Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP).
Broken leaf grades
- BT: Broken Tea – Usually a black, open, fleshy leaf that is very bulky. This classification is used in Sumatra, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and some parts of Southern India.
- BP: Broken Pekoe – The most common broken pekoe grade; from Indonesia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Assam, and Southern India.
- BPS: Broken Pekoe Souchong – Term for broken pekoe in the Assam and Darjeeling regions.
- 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.
- FBOP: 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.
- FBOPF: Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings – The finest broken orange pekoe, with a higher proportion of tips; mainly from Ceylon’s “low districts”.
- GBOP: Golden Broken Orange Pekoe – Second grade tea with uneven leaves and few tips.
- GFBOP1: Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1 – As above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the GFBOP classification.
- TGFBOP1: 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.
The highest quality broken leaf grade listed is the Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1 (TGFBOP1), which is considered the finest broken first grade leaf in Darjeeling and some parts of Assam.
- PF (Pekoe Fannings): Small particles of tea leaves that are slightly larger than dust or “fine” tea particles. This grade is commonly used for tea bags.
- OF (Orange Fannings): A grade of fannings that is slightly larger than PF and often used for tea bags.
- FOF (Flowery Orange Fannings): This grade is common in Assam, Dooars, Nepal, and Bangladesh. It has a larger leaf size than OF and comes close to the smaller broken grades.
- GFOF (Golden Flowery Orange Fannings): The finest grade of fannings in Darjeeling and is used for tea bag production.
- TGFOF (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings): A higher quality grade of fannings with a high proportion of tips. This grade is mainly produced in Darjeeling.
- BOPF (Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings): The main grade used in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Southern India, Kenya, Mozambique, Bangladesh, and China. It is a black-leaf tea with a uniform particle size and no tips.
In the fannings grade, the Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings (TGFOF) is considered the highest quality grade.
- D1: This is the largest particle size of dust grade and is used in tea bags. It is produced in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Africa, South America, Southern India, and Bangladesh.
- PD: Pekoe Dust is finer than D1 and is commonly used in tea bags. It is produced in various tea-growing regions, including India.
- PD1: Pekoe Dust 1 is the finest particle size of dust grade and is primarily produced in India. It is often used in tea bags and as an ingredient in blends.