How is tea graded?
Tea drinkers will find that different teas are graded differently, depending on which part of the plant the leaf originate and the size and quality of the leaf. These grades are not directly related to the quality of the tea leaves. The grding system for the different styles of tea can be found in out Types of Tea section, which is broken down by tea growing region and tea types.
Black Tea Grading
Black teas are graded thusly (in order of commercial value):
- Flowery Orange Pekoe (pronounced peck-oh)
This grade is often considered the ultimate, most subtle and complex of the leaves. The “flowery” in flowery orange pekoe refers to the bud of the plant, a not completely mature leaf, usually the last leaf at the end of a branch. See “orange pekoe”; and “pekoe” for further descriptions of those terms.
- Orange Pekoe
The “orange” in orange pekoe is a reference to the Dutch House of Orange, some of the first great historical tea traders. The grade “orange” is a testament to the quality of the leaf, greater than simply “pekoe”
Originally, pekoe meant that the leaf was harvested from the end of the branch, only one of the three leaves at the tip. Today, however, this term has been expanded and can refer to any whole leaf of a uniform size. The word pekoe is a western corruption of the Chinese term bai hao (white tip), called such due to the white hairs covering the tip of the bud, an indication of its immaturity and therefore high quality.
Souchong refers to any large whole or almost whole leaf, not necessarily from any particular part of the plant. The word souchong is a derivation of the Chinese word xiaozhong.
- Broken Orange Pekoe
This is merely orange pekoe leaves that are no longer whole, but have been torn or somehow rendered into pieces.
- Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
This grade is the “fannings” (small pieces) that remain of the orange pekoe after processing and sorting.
- Broken Pekoe
The large remains of pekoe after the whole leaves have been sorted out.
Fannings are tiny pieces of leaf that remain after the larger pieces have been sorted out of a batch of tea, often the size of coffee grounds.
Dust is literally that, the dust of the tea leaves that remain after sorting.
Broken tea, fannings and dust are used in tea bags, while loose tea is whole leaves and mostly whole leaves.
Oolong (wu-lung, or ooo-long in English) teas are generally produced in Taiwan and are given the following grades (developed by the Taiwanese government), in order of increasing quality: 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.
Green Tea Grading
Green tea is not graded the way black tea is, and there are no set grades due to the many different green teas from different Asian countries. In China they tend to be identified by growing region, while in Japan they tend to be identified by quality as well as production style. Please see our Types of Tea section for more details regarding the various types of teas from the different growing regions around the world, as well as their categorization methodologies.
White tea does not have a grading system in the same manner of other teas, but is differentiates by where it is produced. You may be aware of some of the most common such as Bai Hao Yinzhen (silver needle) or Bai Mu Dan (also known as Pai Mu Tan, White Peony or White Hairy Monkey Tea). There is not actual grading of white teas, just origin nomenclature based on its origin, though many connoisseurs consider Yizhen to be the best quality white tea.
Furthermore, high quality Darjeeling teas have yet another grading system they use, which is (in order of increasing quality):
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, with the first three words referring to the leaf picked only from the very tip of the branch, and considered the highest quality.
Fancy or Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.
Super Fine or Super Fancy Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.
Darjeeling teas will also use a number of other descriptors such as:
This is the name of the plantation where the tea was grown.
Similar to port wine, this means that this is a single batch of tea from the same harvest, not a blend.
- First Flush
Leaves from the first growth of the season and much sought after due to the delicate and subtle nature of the liquor brewed.
- Second Flush
From the second growth of the season. This is a more complex tea with a stronger flavor.
- Autumnal Flush
From the later harvest, after the rainy season and is not as complex or subtle as the previous harvests, but it still can bee a good tea in its own right.