Believe it or not, the grade of a tea leaf doesn't always signify quality. As a simple example, imagine growing something simple like peppermint. If you grow it in fresh organic soil from the garden, it's probably going to look a lot similar to a peppermint plant grown on the side of the road. Even though they look similar, chances are the peppermint from the garden is going to taste a lot better because it was grown with love, care and under safer conditions.
Unfortunately, tea leaf grading focuses more on the look of a tea leaf or time of harvest of a tea than the "love and care" that was put into it. You can take the same looking tea from two different tea gardens and most likely they will taste different. That is why we are constantly trying different teas, because on paper, the tea may look the same, but it's all about the flavor.
So, how is tea rated for quality if not by grade?
The same looking tea from two different places can taste different. What about different grades of tea? Lets take a look at the rating system for teas in India. The most expensive tea you can get is Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGOP). That's a mouthful, right? Basically what this is telling us is that you are buying the finest golden flowers and leaf buds from the top of the tea tree plant. These are most likely hand plucked and carefully handled. How does this differ from an Orange Pekoe (OP), which is simply a leaf a little lower on the tea tree?
Again, you might be surprised. Would you believe that a fair amount of people in a taste test would prefer the deeper, full bodied flavor of an OP tea than the light, subtle, and smooth flavor of a SFTGFOP? In general, the higher end grades of teas tend to be lighter bodied, more smooth, complex, with mild floral notes. Whereas the lower grades of tea will be maltier, jammier, a little more full bodied and robust. Take a look at popular breakfast teas, for example. A good Irish Breakfast or English Breakfast may consist of Broken leaves or even curled leaves to give the most pungent, robust flavor to wake you up.
The same applies for green tea. A high-end Dragonwell tea is remarkably smooth with a wonderful subtle complexity, whereas a standard grade Pinhead Gunpowder is a very robust and strong tea. Some days you might go for that high end Dragonwell, some days for the strong Gunpowder.
What are the different grades of tea?
When people first get into tea, they are surprised to learn that green tea, black tea, oolong, and white tea all come from the same plant. Essentially, what makes all these teas different is how long you let them sit out and oxidize after you pluck the leaves and how you dry them.
When people start getting into loose leaf tea, they start hearing terms like "Orange Pekoe," "#1 Grade," "Royal Grade" and "1st Flush." to name a few. They often wonder if "Orange Pekoe" means that it's orange flavor, or if it's "#1 Grade," does it taste like the best tea ever?
To be perfectly honest, tea leaf grading is confusing! There is no world wide industry standard. In India, they use the Orange Pekoe grading, which has nothing to do with oranges. In China, they may use a number system, with #1 being the highest grade. In Japan, they will simply grade a tea by the part of the tea tree it was harvested from and a few other variations in harvest. And sometimes they using Indian grading methods for Chinese tea.
Let's stick to the most popular types of terms you may encounter:
What is a Flush?
In addition to tea size, there is also the time of year a tea is harvested. In Darjeeling, a mountainous region of India, tea leaves are harvested throughout the year. Each seasonal harvest, or flush, has a different flavor. The early spring First Flush has a light aroma and subtle flavor. Whereas later flushes have a fuller bodied flavors with spicy notes.
British Grading system and Orange Pekoe
The "Orange Pekoe" grading system is one of the most widely recognized, and is the western version of tea grading. It comes from a time when the Dutch East India Company was expanding its tea empire. Orange Pekoe typically refers to black teas in the aforementioned growing region, however, it's not uncommon to hear this grading system used for green teas, or even teas from other growing regions.
The Orange Pekoe grading system has many different terms, but it boils down to the size of the tea leaf, how it looks, and whether it is broken or whole. The higher grades of tea are harvested from the very top bud in a tea shrub. The lower grades are harvested from the lower, larger leaves.
When grading most Orthodox teas, the starting point is Pekoe (P), or a relatively whole leaf tea. Keep in mind this system was designed for black teas, so "whole leaf" doesn't mean literally a perfect, unbroken leaf from the bush, as black teas are rolled and oxidized. But Pekoe is a pretty big leaf, nonetheless. The next smaller size would be around a BOP - Broken Orange Pekoe and go down from there. Tea makers then add modifiers to describe the leaf in more detail: FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe, meaning some of the leaves look open like crushed flower petals) or GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe - there are lots of golden leaves in the tea). The idea is that more descriptors indicate "better" quality, or a fancier tea. After that, even more letters are added, signifying even higher quality. For example, SFTGOP1 stands for Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1.
Chinese Tea Grading
Chinese teas are unique in the fact that the country is large and there are many growing regions. Each growing region has its specialty and cultivated practices that can span thousands of years. Comparing Chinese teas from two different growing regions is like comparing apples and oranges.
Because of this, there is no standard Chinese grading like the Orange Pekoe system, although sometimes Chinese teas will be rated using Orange Pekoe terminology. For Chinese teas, it's all in the name.
Many Chinese teas are graded by number with #5 being the lowest grade and #1 being the better grade. But there is sometimes even better, so you will see terms like Royal or Finest in the name. What this boils down to is that as you get better grades, the leaves will become more uniform, with fewer dissimilar pieces, twigs or broken bits.
Some other teas may have some terms appended to it. Here are some others:
- Congou - Made with careful skill ("gongfu") to produce thin, tight strips without breaking the leaves.
- Mao Feng - A variety, where Mao Feng means Fur Peak, which is made of only slightly twisted leaf buds and is sometimes noted for a smoother and different flavor.
- Xin Ya - The early bud variety, said to have less bitterness.
- Hao Ya - A variety known for its fine buds, sometimes showing prominent amounts of silver tips, and generally the highest grade. Hao Ya is sometimes graded into A and B, where A is the better grade.
Some Chinese teas may use terms for the season they were harvested, such as pre-qingming ("before it rains"). Some of the terms are colorful, so it's best to look further into what the terms mean when you encounter them.
Japanese Tea Grading
Japanese tea is generally limited to a few growing regions. As a result, tea grading is based more on when the plant was harvested and what parts are used to make tea. Here are the basic grades you'll see for the most part:
- Sencha (decocted tea): The first and second flush of green tea made from leaves that are exposed directly to sunlight. This is the most common green tea in Japan. The name describes the method for preparing the beverage.
- Gyokuro (Jade Dew): Gyokuro is a fine and expensive type that differs from Sencha (煎茶) in that it is grown under the shade rather than the full sun for approximately 20 days. The shading causes the amino acids (Theanine) and caffeine in the tea leaves to increase, while catechins (the source of bitterness in tea, along with caffeine) decreases, giving rise to a smooth, sweet taste.
- Matcha (powdered tea): A fine ground tea. It has a very similar cultivation process as Gyokuro. It is expensive and is used primarily in the Japanese Tea ceremony. Matcha is also a popular flavor in ice cream, smoothies, and other sweets.
- Bancha: Lower grade of Sencha harvested as a third- or fourth-flush tea between summer and autumn.
- Kukicha (twig tea): A tea made from stems, stalks, and twigs. Kukicha has a mildly nutty, toasted, and slightly creamy sweet flavor.
Depending on the application, tea grading and names may not make a huge difference. A flavored blend for example, doesn't really require the highest grades of tea. However, as you drink more tea you may appreciate some of the distinct notes on the higher end products, whereas other teas it may not make as much difference. A lot of it has to do with the individual drinker and their preference.
The only real under-performer here are the dust grades. Tea dust is more a by-product of the tea processing industry and used for tea bags.
For those of you looking to expand your palate, don't confuse the grade of a tea with quality. All our teas are quality in their own way. Try all the different grades of tea and find what you like.