Now, I am not an expert by any means. That said, this post marks the beginning of a set of posts for Tea Beginners (considering this site’s url is Tea Fiends, I’ve taken to calling is “The Tea Underling’s Guide”).
One of the things that confused me greatly when I first began looking at loose leaf teas happened to be the sheer amount of code beside their names – SFTGFOP, OPA, TGF BOP1, TGFOF, and on and on. While it takes a good deal of time to commit them all to memory, they tell you the grade of leaf. All teas are graded according to leaf size and keep the blends consistent. The most common you see around is ‘Orange Pekoe’. In the beginning, I was quite silly and thought this was a particular type of tea. However, ‘Orange Pekoe’ denotes a specific size of black tea leaf.
Sorting a tea according to leaf size ensures that the tea has a consistent taste – broken tea leaves have a different flavor from large leaves and a tea brewed with a few smaller pieces can detract from the overall flavor of a whole leaf tea. When drinking whole leaf teas, the drinker experiences a much wider array of flavor profiles. Fanning and Dust, which are commonly used in bagged teas, have a more robust and singular flavor. This does not mean that a broken leaf will always have an inferior quality, but simply that its flavors and body will differ from a whole leaf. Since smaller pieces would naturally sink to the bottom, this will throw off the balance of a carefully created blend. The gradings are not related to quality (that is determined by a number of factors including the location it was grown in and how the leaves were processed). The shape and size of the leaf is important because it determines the body and essence of the cup. When brewing, strength, flavor, and colour infuse at different rates according to the leaf size – the larger the leaf, the slower the rate of infusion, and vice versa.
There are many grades that a whole leaf tea may fall under and it can be daunting when viewing them. The main 12 divisions have more that often fall under them and are as follow:
FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
This is a tea that is made from the end bud and first leaf of each shoot. FOP contains tender, young leaves rolled with the proper proportion of tip (the rather delicate end pieces of the buds).
GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FOP with golden tips. The “golden tips” are the very ends of the golden-yellow buds.
TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
This is the same as GFOP but with a larger portion of the golden tips.
FTGFOP – Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
Again, larger tips and is generally considered to be of a higher taste quality.
SFTGFOP – Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
This is the best of the FOP grades.
OP – Orange Pekoe
Long, pointed leaves that are larger than FOP and were harvested after the buds have opened into leaves. OP seldom contains “tips”.
FP – Flowery Pekoe
Leaves in FP are rolled into balls.
PS – Pekoe Souchong
PS consists of even shorter, coarser leaves than P.
S – Souchong
These are large leaves usually picked from the bottom of the tea bush and have been rolled, lengthwise, producing coarse, ragged pieces. “Souchong” is often used for Chinese smoked teas.
Broken Leaf grades are divided farther. In most Grading Codes, if you find a ‘B’ added to the ones listed above, you are generally looking at a broken leaf form of that tea:
GFBOP – Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
GBOP – Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
TGBOP – Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
TGFBOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Golden Broken Pekoe
FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe
BP – Broken Pekoe
BPS – Broken Pekoe Souchong
Fannings/Fines/Dust are made up of the finest siftings and, as mentioned before, are useful in tea bags for blends that are designed for a quick brew. A “1” is often added to denote the best grade under this category.
They are also further categorized as:
OF – Orange Fannings
BOPF – Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
PF – Pekoe Fannings
BPF – Broken Pekoe Fannings
PD – Pekoe Dust
RD – Red Dust
SRD – Super Red Dust
SFD – Super Fine Dust
BMF – Broken Mixed Fannings
So remember, the grade of tea defines its steeping, colour, and strength. The grading is based on appearance and not on taste, though the taste is often affected by the grade. Keep in mind, though, that tastes will always vary and just because a tea is a high grade that does not mean you might adore it. If you happen to find a lesser graded tea that you adore, then do not feel bad about enjoying it. Tea Snobs are a part of the world just as much as subculture elitist, but if something tastes good, then enjoy it, regardless of whether it is a whole leaf or bagged tea. After all, that is the whole point.
Note: The main image for this post is ‘Fresh Tea Leaves’ taken by Arne Hückelheim at the Happy Valley Tea Estate at Darjeeling, India.