Sometimes we come across tins or packets of tea that are labelled with different letters along with their name. These acronyms are “grading terms” added to the name by the producer to give extra information about that tea. These terms don´t refer to sensory aspects of the tea –they don´t describe the body, texture or aroma of a tea- but give information about the appearance of the leaf that may be helpful when buying teas from a catalogue. These grades are only applied to black teas from certain countries. They vary from country to country and even my best students can get confused, but if we learn how to read the grading names and their acronyms, shopping for tea can become a little easier.
There is no one universal grading system. For example in China, teas are usually graded by number, with ‘first’ being the highest grade, down to 7, 8 or 9, based on leaf style and shape and how carefully the manufacturing process has been carried out. In Taiwan and Japan, grading terms range downwards from, for example, Extra Choicest, Choicest, Choice, Finest, Fine, Good Medium, Medium, Good Common, Common, Nubs, to Dust and Fannings.
The most widely-used grading terms are the ones applied to teas produced in other places, like India, Sri Lanka, Africa, Argentina, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Europe. Some of the most common terms for whole leaf teas are:
OP: Orange Pekoe
FOP: Flowery Orange Pekoe
GFOP: Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP: Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP 1: Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One
FTGFOP: Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FTGFOP 1: Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One
SFTGFOP: Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
SFTGFOP 1: Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One
For broken leaves, the letter “B” is added to the name as in BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe), FBOP, GBOP, TGBOP, etc.
For smaller grades used in teabags, fannings and dust grades are used, for example: OF, OPF, FBOPF, FD, GD.
It is important to mention that tea grades are designated by the producer, and sometimes can vary from one to another. So asking for samples before buying is a way of making sure you are buying the grade you are expecting.
So, going back to our initial question, why do you think tea grades are important? They are important because learning how to read these acronyms and their meanings they provide a lot of information about the tea itself, very useful when it comes to choosing a tea profile. We know small pieces of leaf give stronger liquor than whole leaf teas. So if you are looking for a black tea to be used in a breakfast style blend, then you should go for a broken tea (look for the “B” in the grade). On the contrary, if you look for a mellow, soft and sweet black tea, one with high quantity of buds will provide such an experience, so pick the ones with an F or G letter. F stands for flowery –meaning that the tea has buds- and G stands for Golden -which denote a higher proportion of buds on the tea.
Leaf grades help to understand how the leaves look like and what to expect from them regarding strength, aroma, sweetness…All the information we can gather about the teas will be very useful when making a purchase or when starting a business. Very often tea purchases are made from a catalogue, by studying a long list of teas sent by the seller. The abbreviations, designations and grades previously discussed will help us get an idea of the appearance and style of the tea, but remember that to make a good purchase is advisable to request samples and cup each tea before buying.