Every tea room owner can tell you a story about a customer who sent back their pot of Orange Pekoe tea because it did not taste of oranges. The answer to the drinker’s dilemma may be found in the fact that Orange Pekoe is one of the most common grades of tea manufactured in India or Sri Lanka.
Orange may come from Holland’s ruling monarchy House of Orange—after all, Holland was the first European country to import and export Chinese teas—and the word pekoe, derived from the Chinese word pek-ho or baihao, referring to the tiny silvery hairs on the underside of some tea leaves.
The 19th century English tea industry came up with the unique grading system used in Indian and Sri Lankan teas. These teas are manufactured using giant rolling machines that break open the leaves for oxidation.
The oxidized leaves are sent on a conveyor belt through an oven for drying and unceremoniously dumped into tubs at the mouth of the dryer. After cooling, the leaves of all sizes are sent down a series of vibrating screens to be separated into various grades. Each grade has a potential market and price.
By the way, look for the price to go up with each additional word or letter added to the grade name. Here are the most common grades:
Orange Pekoe (OP) contains the largest long pointed unbroken leaves.
Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) consists of the end bud and first two young leaves rolled with a good balance of tip, the delicate end pieces of the leaf buds.
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP) is an FOP with lots of golden tips.
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) is an FOP with a larger portion of golden tips that often yield a mellower flavor.
Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) is an exceptionally high-quality FOP.
Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP) is the very best FOP.
Pekoe consists of shorter, coarser leaves than OP.
Flowery Pekoe (FP) consists of leaves that have been rolled lengthwise and the pieces are shorter and coarser than OP.
Everything smaller than an OP falls into a broken leaf grade such as Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP), Golden Broken Orange Pekoe (GBOP), or Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe (TGFOP). These broken grades are often packaged for consumers who add milk to their black tea or for tea bags.
19th-century illustration of Chinese tea sorting.
In China, teas are named by region, the time of year when the tea was picked, the method of manufacture, the leaf type used, or legend behind the origination of the tea.
For example, Chun Mee means Precious Eyebrows, from the gently curved shape of the dried green leaves, and Rose Congou is black tea skillfully made by hand and blended with dried pink rose petals before packaging. (Congou, like kung fu, comes from the Chinese word gongfu and has to do with skill). Within each type of tea, grading is according to quality and uses words such as ‘special’ for the finest and ‘common’ for the lowest grades, with grades 1-7 in between. Chinese oolongs are classified by names such as ‘choicest’, ‘finest fine’, and ‘extra fancy’.
Taiwan oolongs are ‘fully superior’, ‘fine to finest’, and ‘fully good’ while Japanese green teas are ‘good common’, ‘finest good’, and ‘extra choicest’.
It is important to understand that grading only gives you information about the appearance and size of the leaf. As a tea buyer, the grade may give me a hint of how the tea’s potential flavor, but it is impossible to tell if a tea is good or not without actually tasting it.