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Grading of tea qualities

A brief introduction to the main tea classification methods from India to the USA, and the differences with the Chinese classification method.

grading of tea qualities

The Western classification is based mainly on the size of the individual leaves, which are determined by their ability to fall through specific screens or mesh sieves. This parameter also vaguely determines the integrity, or breakage level, of every leaf, which is itself a component of the classification system. Although the classification system is not strictly an indicator of quality, the size of the leaves often affects the taste and clarity of the resulting tea. Black teas of basic grade (Orange Pekoe) are very fragrant, with strong floral and fruity aromas, along with a pleasant hint of wood. Thy should also have a slightly bitter taste without astringency, and a sweet aftertaste.

When talking about grades we are generally referring to black teas; white, green and Oolong teas are whole leaf teas and usually they are not graded. The same principle can be applied to high-quality Chinese black teas.

Whole leaves are graded separately from broken leaves. The word Orange refers to the Dutch Monarchy name (not to the fruit) and it's in their honour that the best leaves are named. The word Pekoe comes from the Chinese Pak-Ho meaning "fine hair" as refers to the silvery fine hair that covers the buds.

whole leaf tea grading
  • F.O.P. - Flowery Orange Pekoe. This is the finest crop. It is composed of the bud and the first two leaves. The blend has many buds and therefore is considered very precious.
  • O.P. - Orange Pekoe. This is a fine crop but a little later than the previous one, the bud has already become leaf.
  • S. – Souchong. The leaves are normally the fourth and fifth of the stem and they are bigger, older and larger. They normally contain less caffeine and they are normally rolled lengthwise and used for smoked teas.

In India, the description of the crop is much more specific and indicates a with more precision the quality of the crop:

  • G.F.O.P. - Golden Flowery Orange pekoe. Un F.O.P. with a high proportion of golden buds.
  • T.G.F.O.P. - Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe F.O.P. with many golden buds or tips (hence especially "tippy").
  • F.T.G.F.O.P. - Finest Tippy Gloden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Un T.G.F.O.P. of exceptional quality.
  • S.F.T.G.F.O.P. - Special Finest Tippy Gloden Flowery Orange Pekoe. In Darjeeling the "S" indicates an infusion liquor of supreme quality and very light color.

Sometimes a number is added after the grade, to underline the tasting quality of the infusion.

broken leaf tea grading
These kind of leaves are no longer whole, but they are broken and much smaller then the previous ones. The infusion resulting is generally stronger and bitter.

  • B.O.P. – Broken Orange Pekoe, where Broken literally means, well...broken.
  • F.B.O.P. - Flowery B.O.P. Una B.O.P. with a "Flowery" character.
  • G.B.O.P. - Golden B.O.P.
  • T.G.B.O.P. - Tippy Golden B.O.P.
  • F. – Fannings. Flat pieces, smaller than broken leaves. The infusion produced is very strong.
  • Dust. – Even smaller pieces of leaf used mainly for teabags.

Chinese tea grading method

In addition to classifying tea according to their color, tea traders in China have also developed another system to navigate through the hundreds tea types available there. The system involves the allocation of 12 different grades based on factors such as place of origin, harvesting period and on whether the tea is made from only the buds of the tea plant, the buds and leaves, or the bud and the next two leaves.

The highest quality teas are a luxury so rare that their price per kilogram can reach the thousands of dollars. The best teas sold in most shops in China are typically 4th, 5th, or 6th grade. Of these, the 4th is the highest quality. A higher grade of tea is almost impossible to find in shops, as they are usually reserved for the consumption of officials of the Chinese government.