Tea is sorted into various grades. These grades are not standardized worldwide & may vary according to origin.
Keep in mind that a tea’s grade is not the only indicator of flavor or quality. Other factors such as origin, soil, rainfall, elevation, the particular “flush” or picking season (first Flush has a light aroma and subtle flavor, whereas later flushes have a fuller bodied flavors with spicy notes), combined with the harvesting & manufacturing process all lend a hand in providing tea its unique flavour.
Depending on the application, tea grading & names may not always make a big difference. For example, a flavoured blend does not 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 teas. A lot of it has to do with the individual drinker’s preference.
BRITISH TEA GRADING
The "Orange Pekoe" is the western version of tea grading grading system, & is one of the most widely recognized. It comes from a time when the Dutch East India Company was expanding its tea empire. It was popularized by Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea magnate.
The Orange Pekoe grading system has many different terms, but it boils down to the size of the tea leaf, which is determined by their ability to fall through a sieve or a sifter.
Generally, the more whole the leaf is, and the more buds it contains, the higher the grade of tea, because the size and wholeness of the leaves has a big influence on the taste, clarity, and brewing time of tea.
These grading terms are usually applied to black teas from INDIA, SRI LANKA, JAVA, SUMATRA, AFRICA, & a few CHINESE teas.
ORANGE PEKOE (OP): This is the highest grade given to manufactured tea. It is a whole leaf tea showing no tip, & will not pass through the mesh of a sieve. It does not refer to the flavor of Orange.
Tea makers may then add “descriptors” to the leaf. More descriptors indicate a better quality or a more fancy tea:
F (FLOWERY): During harvesting, the top two leaves and bud (immature leaf tip which is not yet fully opened) are plucked by hand. These young buds have a golden tip during the slow growth periods, hence the term "flowery".
TG (TIPPY & GOLDEN): When the golden tips are in abundance.
1 or 2: Occasionally the number 1 or 2 may be placed at the end of the letters to designate better grades among similar teas.
F (FINER) or SF (SUPER FINE): The letter F or SF may appear before the TGFOP to designate a FINER grade tea.
Thus a tea graded as SFTGFOP1 is a SUPER FINE TIPPY GOLDEN FLOWERY ORANGE PEKOE- GRADE 1. Tea falling into this classification is a premier estate’s finest tea.
- BROKEN ORANGE PEKOE (BOP): is the next grade below Orange Pekoe, which designates the broken leaf that has passed through the mesh of a sieve. Tippy, golden, and flowery or a combination of these terms may also be used as designators. Thus a grade of 'TGBOP' is a TIPPY GOLDEN ORANGE PEKOE.
- FANNING (F): is smaller than BOP. This is a broken leaf about the size of a pin head and is often used in tea bags. They infuse rapidly and make a strong and robust brew.
- DUST (D): is the lowest grade of tea available. This size is the smallest broken pieces left after siftings, sometimes called the 'sweepings' and is mostly used for ready-to-drink beverages, such as bottled iced tea.
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 own specialty, and own cultivation practice that can span thousands of years. Hence, comparing Chinese teas from two different regions is like comparing apples and oranges- the lowest grade from one region may be better than the highest grade from another.
As a result, there is no standard Chinese grading like the Orange Pekoe system (although sometimes Chinese teas will be rated using the Orange Pekoe system).
For Chinese teas, it’s all in the name. You will see terms like “Golden” in the name of premium teas. Some may use terms for the season they were harvested, such as pre-“Qingming” (before it rains). Others may use the regions where the leaves are harvested from, such as Longjing or Yunnan. While some are graded by number, with #5 being the lowest grade, and #1 being the better grade.
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.
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.
- SENCHA (translates to decocted tea): The 1st & 2nd flush (harvest) 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.
- BANCHA (translates to common tea): The 3rd & 4th flush (harvest) of green tea between summer & autumn, making it a lower grade of Sencha.
- GYOKURO (translates to Jade Dew, referring to the pale green color of the infusion): Gyokuro is a fine and expensive type of tea that differs from Sencha in that it is grown under the shade rather than the full sun for approximately 20 days, giving rise to a smooth, sweet taste.
- MATCHA (translates to rubbed 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.
- KUKICHA (translates to twig tea): A tea made from stems, stalks, and twigs. Kukicha has a mildly nutty, toasted, and slightly creamy sweet flavor.