Once the tea is processed by drying and rolling, there is a further stage – grading the leaves. When the tea is ‘finished’, it consists of a mixture of leaf pieces of different sizes. A small piece of tea leaf brews at a different speed to a large piece, so they must be sorted into different sizes, if they are to produce an evenly brewed cup of tea. The different leaf sizes are then graded and classified, and are divided into ‘leaf grades’ (the larger pieces) and ‘broken leaf grades’ (the smaller pieces). Understanding the following leaf grades will prove useful when choosing your tea:
OP – orange pekoe
Contains larger leaves than FOP, and rarely contains ‘tip’, the delicate ends of the buds that are considered necessary for a fine tea.
FOP – flowery orange pekoe
Tea made with the bud and first two leaves of a shoot. Made with tender young leaves and the right amount of ‘tip’.
GFOP – golden flowery orange pekoe
The same as FOP, but made with the very tips of the golden yellow buds
TGFOP – tippy golden flowery orange pekoe
The same as GFOP, but comprising a higher proportion of tips
FTGFOP – finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe
The same as TGFOP, but of an even higher quality.
The use of the word ‘orange’ here can be confusing, until you learn that it has nothing to do with the colour of the leaf. It is thought to come from the House of Orange, Holland’s historic royal family, who imported and exported tea – so it now simply denotes a high-quality tea. So a tea described as Flowery Orange Pekoe will be of a better quality than plain Flowery Pekoe.
Broken leaf grades follow the same pattern, so you will find ‘Broken Orange Pekoe’, ‘Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe’, ‘Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe’ and so on.
Finally, ‘fannings’ refer to the very smallest pieces of leaf; being small, they brew very quickly, so are mostly used in teabags. They are sometimes called ‘fines’ or ‘dust’.