Quality Tea

Each type of tea has a way in which experts grade its quality. While the subtle differences might be lost on a novice, this system is incredibly important for commercial tea manufacturers as it creates marketing price points. Black tea by far leads the pack in commercial teas. Growers in China, India, Africa and Indonesia all follow the same grading system for black tea for continuity.

Measuring Up

The primary measure by which black teas receive grading comes down to leaf size. This ranges from whole leaf or Pekoe tea to dust, which is typically used for tea bags. Within that range there are numerous variations, enough that it takes considerable time and practice to be able to identify one from another. For example, Orange Pekoe tea must have leaves between 8 – 15 cm. in length. Ok, get out your ruler before having your next cup and check that tea!

Hand Picking

Whole leaf tea is picked by hand. After picking, workers sort the leaves by size for processing. Any broken leaves go into a mechanical process called CTC, meaning crush, tear, and curl. This results in a lower grade of tea. The remaining tea receives grading


Tea grading has its one unique terminology. For example, a Tippy (or T) tea comes from newly budding leaf tips. Flowery teas have young leaves and tips. Golden Flowery teas include young tips and buds. Other terms include:

  • Special Finest: the very highest grade currently give to tea
  • Pekoe: unbroken leaves but shorter in size than Orange Pekoe
  • Orange Pekoe: whole leaf that must minimally measure 8 cm. These get rolled lengthwise
  • Pekoe Souchong: Smaller than Pekoe leaves and coarse
  • Souchong: A large leaf tea rolled lengthwise.

The number 1 sometimes appears alongside these designations. This means a high quality tea.

Alphabet Soup

Along with the fundamental tea grade terms there are numerous acronyms used in tea grading that may make your eyes swim momentarily until you start understanding what they mean.

  • BOP1: This stands for Broken Orange Pekoe First Grade. You’ll see this mostly on Ceylon tea.
  • OP: Orange Pekoe is a very common grade of Java and Ceylon teas.
  • OP Sup: Orange Pekoe Superior only comes from Indonesia.
  • FOP1: Flowery Orange Pekoe First Grade comes from Bangladesh and India. It’s also a term used in China for designating a high quality tea.

From that foundation you continue upward in grades from Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First grade all the way to Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First grade (say that three times fast).

But How Does it Taste?

Tea experts do not stop with grading tea by size, color and where it has grown. Ultimately, the true test of tea comes from its marriage with hot water. What type of color results? How is the aroma? And, of course – how does it taste? Truthfully you don’t need to be an expert to examine those aspects for yourself. The pleasure you find in your cup of tea is what matters.

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