Black Tea Grading
The problem with tea grading is the fact that there really isn’t a standard system for all teas. This is despite the fact that tea is a commercially important item globally. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what represents good tea and this is true for various countries and companies that produce tea leaves. Generally, all grading systems revolve around the species of Carmellia Sinensis used, the size of the leaf, the age of the plant when harvested, elevation and the country it was grown in. In the United states however, the grading system focuses mostly on the size of the leaf. This is known as the “Pekoe”, or simply “P” grading system. Pekoe does not imply a specific quality during grading. Rather, it simply means that an entire leaf was used instead of broken bits.
This particular system almost always is used to grade tea of the black variety. Black tea undergoes full oxidation during processing, unlike green tea. Green tea experiences the least amount of oxidation along with white tea varieties. The Pekoe designation is usually used for grading teas from India and Sri Lanka. Below Pekoe, we have what is known as BP (Broken Pekeo). It simply means the use of leaves that were not whole. The two lower Pekoe designations are “Dust” and “Fannings” with dust usually describing the lowest quality black teas. Next on the list, we have “F” or “Flowery”. The FOP designation deals with the actual quality of the leaf. Flowery simply means that unopened buds of the leaf were used in the making of the tea. But what is Orange? Orange (“O”), is used when describing a leaf that is larger than usual. As such, a tea with a FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) designation simply means the tea was made from whole unopened leaves and buds that were larger than usual.
Next up, we have G (Golden). G literally describes leaves that have golden tips. Golden tips are associated with higher quality in general as these leaves were harvested earlier in the season. This designation is similar to T (Tippy) as they both deal with leaves with golden tips. Tippy simply means that all the leaves used had golden tips during processing. The designations used thus far are for more common varieties of tea. But once you paying more for higher quality teas, you come across F (Finest). Yes, there is another F used besides “Flowery”, further adding to the confusion. Finest stands for high quality processing and production. And the final letter used in the grading system is S (Special). Special refers to the highest possible production quality for tea leaves. Those with S and F designations usually cost the most on the commercial market.
Pekoe (P) – Whole leaves
Broken Pekoe (BP) – Whole leaves were not used
Fannings – One grade below BP
Dust – The lowest grade size for black tea
Golden (G) – This tea was made with leaves with golden tips (Not all)
Tippy (T) – All the leaves used for the tea had golden tips
Flowery (F) – Delicate unopened leaf buds were used
Orange (O) – Indicates leaf sizes that are large
Finest (F) – High quality production standards during processing
Special (S) – Highest quality production standards during processing
It should be noted that some companies use additional designations which only adds to the confusion. This may be a marketing tool or it may reflect actual quality. A combination of the designations are used to describe teas, such as GFBOP (Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe). This method of grading black teas is particularly prevalent in the United States and may or may not be followed in other countries.