Tea is graded according to leaf quality, which includes size, location on the branch, and degree of breakage(usually intentional).
The two main factors which affect the grading of tea are:
1. The size of the tea leaves: Whole, large tea leaves gain a higher grading
2. The method of production of the tea: There are 2 methods of manufacturing tea. These are the traditional method of production of tea by hand and the more modern mechanized method which is aptly called the CTC process (Crush, Tear and Curl). It is considered that the mechanized method damages the tea leaves and as a result the tea leaves bear a lower grading.
Leaf grades begin with the quality and size of the leaf.
Souchong (S) – The larger leaves picked from closer to the bottom of the branch. These leaves are usually twisted lengthwise and used for Chinese smoked teas (ie. Lapsang Souchong).
Pekoe (P) – Pekoe grade leaves are generally the 3rd and 4th leaf sets on the branch. These are smaller and less coarse than souchong.
Orange Pekoe (OP) – Orange Pekoe grade defines the first 2 leaves from the tip of a branch. Orange does not refer to the flavour!
Broken (B) – The “B” indicates broken leaf grades when added in front of any of the above grades. Most often seen as Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP). Broken teas usually infuse more quickly than whole leaf varieties.
Then descriptions of the “tips” are added.
Flowery (Broken) Orange Pekoe (FOP, FBOP) – Orange pekoe grade which includes some “tips” or leaf buds. May be whole leaf or broken.
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP) – Indicates a flowery orange pekoe with “tips” and flowers that are golden in colour.
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) – Flowery Orange Pekoe with a larger percentage of golden tips.
Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTFGOP) Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGOP) – Usually an estate’s finest teas. Comprised mainly of golden flowers, leaf buds, and the youngest tea leaves.
The number one (1) following any of the above grades indicates that this is the best product at this grade from the estate. The definition of “best” is left to the estate.
Fannings & Dust - consist of very small pieces of tea and tea dust. Considered the lowest grade of tea and typicaly used in most teabags for a quick brewing tea.
What does “Flush” mean?
Estate teas can also be identified as “1st flush”, “2nd flush”, or “Autumnal flush”. This simply indicates when the tea was harvested.
The Spring harvest is 1st flush, second flush is usually a summer picking. Autumnal flush is as the name implies, a fall harvest. Some growing regions also produce Winter picked teas. One harvest time is not necessarily better than another, but harvest time does affect the flavour profile of a tea. Later harvests tend to be more mellow, or less spectacular, depending on the point of view.