TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRUCE RICHARDSON (elmwoodinn.com)
Every tearoom owner can tell you a story about a customer who sent back their pot of Orange Pekoe tea because it did not taste of oranges. The answer to the drinker’s dilemma may be found in the fact that Orange Pekoe is one of the most common grades of tea manufactured in India or Sri Lanka. Orange may come from Holland’s ruling monarchy House of Orange—after all, Holland was the first European country to import and export Chinese teas—and the word pekoe, derived from the Chinese word pek-ho or baihao, refers to the tiny silvery hairs on the undersides of some tea leaves.
The 19th-century English tea industry came up with the unique grading system used in Indian and Sri Lankan teas. These teas are manufactured using giant rolling machines that break open the leaves for oxidation. The oxidized leaves are sent on a conveyor belt through an oven for drying and unceremoniously dumped into tubs at the mouth of the dryer. After cooling, the leaves of all sizes are sent down a series of vibrating screens to be separated into various grades. Each grade has a potential market and price. By the way, look for the price to go up with each additional word or letter added to the grade name.
In China, teas are named by region, the time of year when the tea was
picked, the method of manufacture, the leaf type used, or the legend
behind the origination of the tea. For example, Chun Mee means “precious
eyebrows,” from the gently curved shape of the dried green leaves, and
Rose Congou is black tea skillfully made by hand and blended with dried
pink rose petals before packaging. (Congou, like kung fu, comes from the
Chinese word gongfu and has to do with skill.) Within each type of tea,
grading is done according to quality and uses words such as special for
the finest and common for the lowest grades, with grades 1 to 7 in
between. Chinese oolongs are classified by terms such as choicest,
finest fine, and extra fancy.
Taiwan oolongs are fully
superior, fine to finest, and fully good, while Japanese green teas are
good common, finest good, and extra choicest.
It is important to
understand that grading gives you information only about the appearance
and size of the leaf. As a tea buyer, the grade may give me a hint of
the tea’s potential flavor, but it is impossible to tell whether a tea
is good or not without actually tasting it.
Indian and Sri Lankan Tea Grades
Orange Pekoe (OP) contains the largest long-pointed unbroken leaves.
Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) consists of the end bud and the first two young leaves rolled with a good balance of tip (the delicate end pieces of the leaf buds).
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP) is an FOP with numerous golden tips.
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) is an FOP with a larger portion of golden tips that often yield a mellower flavor.
Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) is an exceptionally high-quality FOP.
Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP) is the very best FOP.
Pekoe consists of shorter, courser leaves than OP.
Flowery Pekoe (FP) consists of leaves that have been rolled lengthwise, and the pieces are shorter and coarser than those of OP.
Everything smaller than an OP falls into a broken-leaf grade such as
Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP), Golden Broken Orange Pekoe (GBOP), or Tippy
Golden Broken Orange Pekoe (TGBOP). These broken grades are often
packaged for tea bags or for consumers who add milk to their black tea.
Bruce Richardson is the author of The New Tea Companion: A Guide to Teas Throughout the World (Benjamin Press, 2008).
A worker at Sri Lanka’s Kenilworth Tea Estate prepares more than 20 grades of teas for tasting each day in the tea garden’s sampling room.