The classification of tea has been a difficult subject for many years, but as the trade becomes increasingly international (2015: in excess of $38 Billion USD), more standardisation is required. There are two main international tea grading systems, originating from the same Orange Pekoe system and some remains of older standards such as in China (which is driving some international change) and Japan/Taiwan.
The Orange Pekoe system has been in place since the early 19th century and was further popularised by the Tea magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton. This still remains in place today and is increasingly adopted, as the International Standards Organisation (ISO) have built standards around the terminology. Although initially used for Black tea production, ISO standards are now used for Green tea & Oolong. This assists in ensuring minimum levels of Polyphenols (Flavonoids) and Catechins are present, for which tea derives its health benefits, as well as a measure for Caffeine etc.
In order to assist the consumer in making informed and consistent choices and to protect them from pesticide, metals content & radiation levels, many organisations have been formed such as Tea & Herbal Infusions Europe (THIE), Food & Agriculture Org. of UN (FAO) which all refer to the ISO literature. Although many disparities still remain worldwide, conferring special rights on areas, such as Darjeeling with Special Geographical Indication (SGI) and Longjing (aka Dragonwell) with Protective Designation of Origin (PDO) being applied to Teas, assist in upholding these high standards.
The best method is to look, smell and taste the tea, but working to a standard adhered by many obviously assists in the selection process. The main tea leaf grades in descending order can be seen in the chart below, with an example. Further explanation is shown below.
(tea grades in descending order table & whole leaf to bud picture)
The starting point is Orange Pekoe (OP), as the name gets longer it generally denotes higher quality. 1 after the OP indicates the first flush, or growth or the season, whilst a 2 indicates the 2nd growth & so on. This is also indicative of the time of year according to the tea growing season (example, Darjeeling from March through to October).
This system is used for both Green & Black tea. The names are denoted:
- OP1 – slightly delicate, long, wiry leaf with the light liquor
- OPA – bold, long leaf tea which ranges from tightly wound to almost open
- OP – mid between OP1 and OPA, can consist of long wiry leaf without tips
- FOP or Flowery OP – high-quality tea with a long leaf and few tips.
- F OP1- as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification
- GFOP1, Golden Flowery OP1 – higher proportion of tip than FOP.
- TGFOP, Tippy Golden F OP – the highest proportion of tip
- Finest TGF OP – highest quality grade, often hand processed and produced at only the best plantations, roughly one-quarter tips
- SFTGFOP – sometimes used to indicate the very finest
(Mnemonic to remember: Something Far Too Good For Ordinary People)
For Green Tea, Chinese names are often mixed with the OP system, especially in Ceylon. The following are examples:
- Whole Leaf YH – Young Hyson
- FYH – Fine Young Hyson
- Broken GP – Gunpowder
- H – Hyson
- FH – Fine Hyson
- Fannings Soumee
(a combination of Pekoe (BOPF) & Chinese (such as HYSON) terminology)
Broken Leaf grading system.
This is used extensively for black teas, either as blends or alone. It is worth noting whole leaf teas (above) are not necessarily better or more expensive than broken grades, as many other factors can influence this (Climate, Terroir, Type etc):
- BP – Broken Pekoe: Broken pekoe grade.
- BPS – Broken Pekoe Souchong.
- FP – Flowery Pekoe: High-quality pekoe. Usually coarser with a fleshier, broken leaf.
- BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe: Main broken grade.
- F BOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe: Coarser and broken with some tips.
- F BOP F – Finest Broken Orange Pekoe Flowery: The finest broken orange pekoe.
- G BOP – Golden Broken Orange Pekoe: Second-grade tea
- GF BOP1 – Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: As above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the GFBOP classification.
- TGF BOP1 – Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: High-quality leaves with a high proportion of tips.
Traditional Chinese grading
Chinese grading has traditionally been very simple starting with the highest grade denotes as 1, with resulting less superior grades as 8 or 9.
The harvest season also has a major effect, with teas picked during ‘Qing Ming’ season highly sought after.
- Qing Ming “clear bright”: tea picked before April 4-6
- Yu Qian “before the rains”: tea picked before April 20
- Gu Yu “grain rain”: tea picked before May 5
- Li Xia “start of summer”: tea picked before May 21
Therefore it might be seen a grade 4 or 5 pre-QingMing Dragonwell (LongJing) tea as a common description with the season & where the tea is from. This would be a particularly good tea. Other explanations also could advise the source, such as Yunnan and the description of the leaves, ‘Golden Monkey’ (see pic, redolent of monkey claws), or ‘Silver needle’ (see pic)
CTC: Fannings, Dust grade
The Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) processing method uses the remnants not used in the above. However this doesn’t necessarily mean they are any lesser quality, but as premium tea is generally sold as loose leaf, smaller pieces are required for bags. (The video below/right is a
- PF – Pekoe Fannings
- OF – Orange Fannings
FOF– Flowery Orange Fannings. Leaf sizes can come close to the smaller broken grades.
- GFOF – Golden Flowery Orange Fannings: Finest grade in Darjeeling for tea bag production.
- TGFOF – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings.
- BOPF – Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings: Main grade
- D1—Dust 1
- PD—Pekoe Dust
- PD1—Pekoe Dust 1
Standards and Organisations
The following standards applicable to tea are in place of which the ISO Technical Committee TC34 (Food products) Subcommittee SC8 (Tea) are responsible for guidance:
- ISO 3720 – Black tea: Definition and basic requirements
- ISO 11287 – Green tea: Definition and basic requirements
- ISO/TR 12951 – White Tea: Definition
- ISO 14502 Pt 1 – Total Polyphenol content (Flavonoids)
- ISO 14502 Pt 2 – Catechins in Tea: Green
- ISO 3103 – Tea: Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests (see above/left: winner of the 1999 Ig Nobel prize for literature)
The following international organisations can provide more information: