Tea grading is an imprecise system with no global standardization and no oversight. It uses old-fashioned and uses vague categorizations that can be confusing to outsiders and insiders alike.
So why bother learning it? Despite it’s annoying inconsistencies, it’s used across the industry by growers and producers. Knowing this language will give you some common ground when the acronyms and names start flying. It’s also useful if you’re buying teas online for blending.
We’ll have some fun, learn some weird tea terms, get a frame of reference for how tea grading works, and learn a bit about tea history. Grab a cup of your favourite tea and let’s get to it!
The first thing you need to know: Tea grading does not describe what the tea will taste like in a cup.
A TGFOP Ceylon from Sri Lanka can taste totally different from a TGFOP Assam from India. Or you might have an amazing sencha from one tea garden, then a mediocre sencha from another.
Tea grading describes how the leaf looks, or how it’s processed. Grading is strictly based on physical characteristics.
Tea grading systems are not universal
Tea grading systems vary throughout the world. Major tea growing countries developed categories as their domestic tea production increased and they began exporting tea. In the case of China, where tea’s long history stretches back to 2,737 BCE., it’s no surprise there’s an endless taxonomy of tea terms.
Adding to the confusion, producers often add the grades at the garden or estate-level with little to no oversight. Thus the inconsistencies from the consumer end.
Tea grading in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya
When the British were on the colonization path, they influenced the economies of the countries they invaded, including India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. Today, those are three of the largest tea producing countries in the world, and as a result of British influence, all use the ‘orange pekoe’ grading system.
You might be familiar with the term ‘orange pekoe.’ You might have seen it on your grandmother’s tea box, or on a breakfast menu.
- OP (Orange Pekoe) is a long, full, wiry leaf without tips.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) has a long leaf and a few tips for quality.
- GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is like FOP but with more “golden” tips of the bud’s leaves than FOP.
- TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) has the highest proportion of tip compared to FOP and GFOP, and the main grade in Darjeeling and Assam.
- FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is really great quality FOP.
- SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is the best of the best FOP with a large amount of the leaves having the golden tips of new leaf buds.
You’ll also see the number ‘1’ sometimes appended; this is marks the best. For example, FOP1 is the best of the FOP grade. The highest grade teas here will be those harvested by hand, during the first pickings (“flushes”) of the season.
For broken leaves, a ‘B’ is added to the name: BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe). For smaller portions of the leaf, known as “fannings,” an ‘F’ is added: BOPF (Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings). Below fannings, you have dust, marked with a ‘D’ as such: BOPD (Broken Orange Pekoe Dust).
Fannings and dust sound weird, but it ends up in many tea bags because it’s cheap, and the bulk surface area makes for a strong steep, desirable in a lot of breakfast blends.
*Edit (March 5, 2018): A reader and tea vendor pointed out this is also the system they use in Nepal.
Want to hear a boujie tea joke that definitely hasn’t been told 1,000 times?
—What does FTGFOP stand for? (beat) —Far Too Good for Ordinary People.
I’m here all week, folks.
Sidebar: the etymology of ‘orange pekoe’
In case you were wondering—no, Orange Pekoe does not taste like oranges.
I the Amoy dialect found in China’s Fujian province (near the Taiwan Strait, great oolongs), ‘pe̍h-ho‘ means white downy hair, like the fine fuzz found on young, small, highly prized tea leaves.
The origin of the term ‘orange’ is less clear, but here are a couple of theories:
Theory 1: The Dutch
The Dutch East India Company did a lot of trading throughout the 1600s.
Did you know the Dutch love the colour orange? It’s true. The Dutch Royal Family was the “House of Orange”, and from major banks (ING) to football fans, the Dutch love wearing orange. King’s Day in April is a major holiday there, where everyone decks out in orange to celebrate the royals.
The point of all this is that top quality pekoe tea (good enough to sell to the royal family) would be called ‘orange pekoe’.
Theory 2: Oxidized Leaves Appear Orange
Before drying, high-quality oxidized leaves appears orange-ish. If you’ve ever steeped a nice orthodox black tea leaf long enough, you’ll notice when you unfurl it the colour is a rich copper brown, possibly close enough to callorange.
Did you know? Tea from Sri Lanka is often called ‘Ceylon.’ This is another European colonial holdover. When the Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in 1505 they called it ‘Ceilão,’ which then became ‘Ceylon’ when the British took over. Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, and changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972 when it became a republic.
Tea grading in China
The Indian/British Colonial Orange Pekoe System is also sometimes applied to black teas from China, but China also has its own number grading system.
The Chinese grades range from 1 (best) and onwards to 7 or 9 (worst), but this system is rarely used. I’ve personally never seen it. What you’ll more often come across is the terms on the list below.
As with the orange pekoe system, grading does not guarantee quality of flavour. It just gives you an idea of what to expect in terms of taste and visual appearance.
The youngest, first-harvest teas and newly opened buds are the most prized, while the older leaves lower down the stem (souchong, congou, and bohea) are less so.
Sometimes those old leaves down the stem are useful, like in Lapsang Souchong, a tea smoked over pinewood fires. It has a strong cigar-like, smokey flavour. Leaves farther down the stem are used to make it because the more delicate flavours of the higher leaves would be lost in the smoke, anyway.
Chinese teas are more commonly categorized by several well-established processing styles. This list is not extensive—China has hundreds if not thousands of regionally unique teas. These are some of the main ones you’ll come across.
- Mao Feng is a green tea produced in Anhui province in China. Mao Feng means ‘fur peak,’ since the tea has little white hairs. For this tea, only the new tea buds and the leaf next to the bud are used.
- Dragon Well (a.k.a. Longjing) is a pan-roasted green tea from Longjing village in Zhejiang Province. This tea is long and flat.
- Pi Lo Chun (a.k.a. Green Snail Spring) is a green tea from the Dongting mountains near Lake Tai in Jiangsu. It’s picked in early spring and rolled into a tight spiral.*
- Silver Needle (a.k.a. Bai Hao Yin Zhen) is a white tea produced using only the top buds or leaf shoots. It looks white and fluffy, like little caterpillar pods.
- White Peony (a.k.a. Bai Mudan) is a white tea made from leaves plucked containing one leaf shoot and two young leaves below it. It has more body than silver needle white tea.
- Lapsang Souchong is the smokey tea I mentioned above! It’s from the Wuyi province of Fujian.
- Tie Guan Yin (a.k.a. Iron Buddha, Iron Goddess) is an oolong tea from Anxi and Fujian.
- Da Hong Pao (a.k..a Big Red Robe, Wuyi Cliff Tea) is a long-oxidized oolong grown in the Wuyi mountains. There’s one old garden on the mountain with a few bushes that allegedly date back to the Song dynasty (960-1279).
- Gunpowder Green Tea (a.k.a. zhu cha, pearl tea) is rolled into shiny pellets. There’s a good chance you’ve seen this one. The little balls look like gunpowder.
- Pu’erh should only be applied to fermented dark teas coming out of the Yunnan Province. Many con artists fake pu’erh tea by adding a label from the Yunnan region, or a famous tea bush grove, hoping to sell it at a high price.
- Keemun is a fruity black tea from Anhui province. It’s used in a lot of blends in the west today. The name is an old western pronunciation of Qimen, a nearby city. Its leaves are fine and thin, and sometimes look almost like broken up vanilla bean pods.
- Lu’an Melon Seed Tea is a green tea from Anhui Province with flat, oval tea leaves. It’s made using the second leaf on the branch.
*Pi Lo Chun has into seven further grades (Supreme, Supreme Ⅰ,Grade Ⅰ,Grade Ⅱ,Grade Ⅲ, Chao Qing Ⅰ, and Chao Qing Ⅱ).
Did you know? What we call ‘black tea’ in English is ‘red tea’ in Chinese.
Tea grading in Japan
In Japan, officially there are grades based on the leaf’s appearance that include: Extra Choicest, Choicest, Choice, Finest, Fine, Good Medium, Medium, Good Common, Common, Nubs, to Dust and Fannings.
BUT! you’ll rarely ever see this system. I’ve never seen it. I just know it exists from an academic perspective.
- Gyokuro is the highest grade of green tea. It’s picked during the first round of harvesting, and is shaded from the sun for a few weeks before its picked to increase chlorophyll and give it a rich, umami flavour. Gyokuro is also high in caffeine, and low in the catechins that make tea bitter.
- Sencha is the Japanese green tea most people are familiar with. It’s also picked during the first round of harvest, but it’s leaves aren’t shaded the way gyokuro’s are.
- Kabuse Sencha is green tea that’s shaded for around one week before being picked. Between sencha and gyokuro.
- Bancha is a lower grade of course green tea that comes from later harvests. It’s often used in blends such as genmaicha (brown rice tea).
- Hojicha is made from bancha leaves roasted over charcoal. It has a nutty, umami flavour.
- Tencha leaves are used to make matcha, although you can sometimes find them on their own as well.
- Matcha is stone ground tencha leaves that becomes the bright green matcha powder that’s become so popular in North America. Traditionally, it’s used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
- Kukicha is literally ‘twig tea,’ made from tea stems.
- Mecha is early Spring tea made from the buds and tips of the plant.
- Konacha is a low-grade tea, basically the dust or fannings-level remnants from sencha and gyokuro processing.
I should also note, these are all green teas, as 99.9% of tea produced in Japan is green tea. Occasionally you’ll see a black tea crop up. Here’s a review I did of a Japanese Black Tea.
I have never seen a Japanese oolong—please let me know if you do!
There are more too, like Fukamushicha, Asamushicha, Kukicha, Shincha, Aracha, Tamaryokucha, Kamairicha, many grades of matcha, and more. But, to be honest, I didn’t want to get too into the weeds here. This post is thick enough as it is.
When I go to Japan this spring, I’ll write more in-depth about Japanese teas, and Japanese tea vocabulary!
Tea grading in Taiwan
Taiwan uses a number system to grade teas—1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. Some gardens still use an old government system that went as follows: standard, on good, good, fully good, good up, good to superior, on superior, superior, fully superior, superior up, superior to fine, on fine, fine, fine up, fine to finest, finest, finest to choice.
Luckily, I’ve never seen this system… anywhere.
You’re far more likely to see pouches of Taiwanese tea that say what garden or region the tea is from, such as: Tung Ting Oolong, or Ali Shan oolong.
Do some reading about the different regions and find out what you like. Some regions have different characteristics at different times of year.
Oolong is Taiwan’s thing. It’s what they’re known for. My theory is that because Taiwan doesn’t have a large industry of exporting tea for blends like India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and China do, that’s why they don’t have all the broken grades and fanning classifications.
Most tea you get from Taiwan will be pretty good, and getting the great stuff is just a matter of looking for the right flushes, gardens, and sellers.
If you’re a fan of Taiwanese teas, I recommend checking out Tillerman Tea, run by David Campbell, a Canadian residing in California who knows way more about Taiwanese teas than me. His Taiwanese oolongs are always awesome, and he knows a ton about the region.
Did you know? ‘Formosa Oolong’ means Taiwanese oolong? ‘Ilha Formosa,’ meaning ‘Beautiful Island’ was the Portuguese colonizers name for Taiwan. Nowadays, the terms are interchangeable in the world of tea, similar to Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
How blenders use tea grading
Let’s say you’re a blender. You want to put together a breakfast blend, and you’re ordering tea online.
You see your options from Assam are OP or BOP. Without seeing the tea, you know you want the BOP, because you know broken up leaves mean more surface area to the water, and result in a stronger steep.
This is how tea grading helps set our expectations for a product. It’s especially helpful as we don’t always get to see the tea before we buy it, especially if you’re buying in bulk.
The challenges of grading tea
As you’ve seen above, there are a LOT of terms you can use to grade tea. Like, a painful amount.
“But MEL!” you say, “How can anyone be expected to memorize all these?”
The good thing is—no one expects you to! But, you should have a general idea of what these gradings mean and where they come from. That’s why reference posts like this exist!
Eventually you’ll drink enough tea that the acronyms will roll off your tongue like, “WTF are you doing using those TGFOPs for making tea bags? Get some BOPF in there!”
Or something like that.
If you liked this post, share it! You might also enjoy the Tea 101 course offered by the Tea Association of Canada. In it they cover tea grading and other knowledge. I talk a bit about it in my post, How to Become a Certified Tea Sommelier.
If you have any other tea questions, or have any recommendations for how I can improve this post, hit me up in the comments below!
Is there a topic you’d like me to cover? Let me know!