Tea is graded according to leaf quality, which includes size, location on the branch, and degree of breakage(usually intentional). Note that there is very little standardization in tea grading between growing regions. Most regions pick and choose what grades they will use. Others use totally different systems. The grading below is used mainly, but not exclusively, for teas grown in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Leaf grades begin with the quality and size of the leaf.
Souchong (S) – The larger leaves picked from closer to the bottom of the branch. These leaves are usually twisted lengthwise and used for Chinese smoked teas (ie. Lapsang Souchong).
Pekoe (P) – Pekoe grade leaves are generally the 3rd and 4th leaf sets on the branch. These are smaller and less coarse than souchong. (Trivia: Pekoe probably derived from the Chinese for “white flower”. Today this would be written as “Bai Hwa”. Initially it was anglicized as “Peh Hoe”. Like “Beijing” was “Peking”.)
Orange Pekoe (OP) – Orange Pekoe grade defines the first 2 leaves from the tip of a branch. Orange does not refer to the flavor! (Trivia: Why Orange? Haven’t a clue.)
Broken (B) – The “B” indicates broken leaf grades when added in front of any of the above grades. Most often seen as Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP). Broken teas usually infuse more quickly than whole leaf varieties.
Then descriptions of the “tips” are added.
Flowery (Broken) Orange Pekoe (FOP, FBOP) – Orange pekoe grade which includes some “tips” or leaf buds. May be whole leaf or broken.
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP) – Indicates a flowery orange pekoe with “tips” and flowers that are golden in color.
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) – Flowery Orange Pekoe with a larger percentage of golden tips.
Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTFGOP)
Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGOP) – Usually an estate’s finest teas. Comprised mainly of golden flowers, leaf buds, and the youngest tea leaves.
The number one (1) following any of the above grades indicates that this is the best product at this grade from the estate. The definition of “best” is left to the estate.
What does “Flush” mean?
Estate teas can also be identified as “1st flush”, “2nd flush”, or “Autumnal flush”. This simply indicates when the tea was harvested. The Spring harvest is 1st flush, second flush is usually a summer picking. Autumnal flush is as the name implies, a fall harvest. Some growing regions also produce Winter picked teas. One harvest time is not necessarily better than another, but harvest time does affect the flavor profile of a tea. Later harvests tend to be more mellow, or less spectacular, depending on the point of view.
Chinese Tea Grading:
Tea grading in China is traditionally more descriptive. For example, Yunnan teas may be offered as Yunnan (the standard), Golden Yunnan (a step up), Imperial Yunnan (higher yet). Oolongs are often graded as Choicest (better) or Superior (standard). The best way to evaluate the offerings is to read the descriptions, check the prices and buy samples. The higher grades will command a higher price. That doesn’t mean that an individual tea consumer will necessarily prefer the highest grades. It is quite possible that the characteristic which makes a certain tea superior to the grower is not a characteristic that suits an individual’s taste. This individual would prefer a milder, standard grade of this tea over the premium grade.
What Determines Quality?
Like any produce, fruit or vegetable, tea can vary widely from one year to the next. Tea is grown where conditions like soil, altitude, and climate are generally favorable to good tea production. However, changes in rainfall, temperature, number of sunny days, etc. from year to year can substantially change the quality and value of each year’s production. Tea reaches the retail market through a process of various buyers cupping available teas in each harvest, selecting what they will buy and stock, and then presenting their offerings to buyers for retail outlets where the same process occurs. So, when buying tea from any retail outlet, whether at a brick and mortar shop, or through the internet, in addition to the growers ability to produce good tea, the customer is also “buying” the preferences and the abilities of the buyers that selected the teas for the shop. If a shop carries many teas that a customer finds pleasing, it would be reasonable to believe that the buyers for that shop have tastes that are similar to the customer’s taste. That should warrant a level of trust in the tea shop.
If you prefer estate teas, don’t be alarmed when your favorite tea shop runs out of your favorite. It most often means the latest crop wasn’t up to par. Generally the shop will have a recommendation for a similar tea. Finding the same estate from a different source may not be a good idea. After all, if another shop could buy the tea, your shop probably could also, but they chose not to.
Similar principles apply to blended and flavored teas. A shop will choose blends and flavors from suppliers who they trust to deliver consistent quality. For you, the proof is still in the tasting, and in finding the shop that delivers a range of teas that you enjoy.