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Not all teas are created equal – there are numerous grades of tea which denote their production and quality. The first stage involves sorting the broken and whole leaves.
Whole leaf teas from countries such as Sri Lanka and India are often graded by the abbreviations below. Chinese and Japanese teas follow their own grading systems and are hardly ever graded using these terms.
FTGFOP – Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
OP – Orange Pekoe
FP – Flowery pekoe
Well, that’s all well and good, but what is orange pekoe?
Orange pekoe sounds like a delicious orange flavour, however this is not the case. The orange part is thought to derive either from the Dutch East India Company, one of the first big importers of tea to Europe. The Dutch Royal House was known as the House of Orange-Nassau and their shipments may have been labelled with this. Alternatively, it has also been suggested that the name may have stemmed from the resultant orange colour of the cup. The term Pekoe is thought to come from the Chinese 白毫, meaning white down/hair, pronounced “pe̍h-ho”, and refers to the fine, silvery hairs present on the new buds. The youngest and smallest leaves at the bud of the branch are the most aromatic.
The grade of the tea depends on the number of leaves that are also plucked below the pekoe bud. Top quality teas only take the pekoe, examples include Chinese Silver Needle tea or Assam Golden Tips. Second to this is a pluck that takes the pekoe and one or two leaves below it. In the most common pluck, the third leaf is also taken. This tea is still enjoyable but of a slightly lesser quality that the previous methods. The fourth and fifth leaves may also be taken for some blends, resulting in a ‘souchong’. These teas lack the aromatic properties of the previous types, and are commonly used in Chinese smoked teas.
Finally, the broken leaves often make their way into stronger tea blends; some are processed through the CTC (cut, tear, curl) process. These are often lower grade teas; the very smallest fragments are known as fannings or dust and are ideal for use in a teabag. They strengthen quickly, adding to their convenience but usually do not result in the deep or varied flavour of whole leaf teas.