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, its 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.
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.