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How Tea Is Made

Qualities of Tea

Once tea leaves are processed, they are given a grade. They're not like the grades you got in school, though. Tea grades have lots of letters, and they're used to describe the tea in terms of the size and quality of the leaves. There are hundreds of grades, and the grading system is extremely complicated. The categories change depending on the country of origin, the region from which the leaves hail, and even the plantation on which the tea was grown. And there are separate grading methods -- and names of grades -- for black, green, oolong, and white varieties. Here's a sampling of the most common:

Best of the Black Teas

Black tea makes up 98 percent of the international tea market, so there are many more varieties and grades of black tea. There are four basic sizes of black tea leaves: leaf, broken leaf, fannings (smaller than broken leaf), and dust (the smallest grade, almost a powder). Size does matter, but it isn't the final determination of tea quality. Generally, the smaller the leaf size, the faster the tea brews, giving the final product a darker shade and a more intense flavor. The larger, whole leaves offer a smoother flavor and a lighter-colored brew.

Black teas are typically described by the term pekoe (pronounced peck-oh). Pekoe is accompanied by a long list of adjectives that more specifically classify the tea. Tippy, for instance, is a modifier added to both whole and broken leaf grades to let the buyer know that there are buds in the tea. (The more buds, the higher the quality.) Acronyms are created out of all the terms associated with a particular tea, and the acronym is stamped or printed on the outside of the tea chest or tea box for ready reference. The more letters, the higher quality the tea.

Here's a small sampling of the black tea grades and their accompanying acronyms.

  • Pekoe (P) Leaves that are shorter and less wiry than orange pekoe -- may also be called early pekoe.
  • Orange pekoe (OP) This describes the unbroken leaf. While orange pekoe is not necessarily a better tea, the leaves are thin and rolled and make an overall good presentation.
  • Broken orange pekoe fannings (BOPF) Smallest of tea particles from the tea leaf. What you usually find in your tea bags.
  • Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP) The whole orange pekoe leaf, unrolled, with a golden tip. This tip coloring indicates that the leaf buds were picked when they were young and tender.
  • Supreme Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) The very highest quality flowery orange pekoe with the most golden tips.
  • Souchong (S) This is a coarser, flat leaf and is sometimes the fourth leaf of the shoot. Though it is considered to be a lower-quality tea leaf, it has a bold taste. It's grown most often in Taiwan and China.

Oolong Tea Winners

The vast majority of oolong teas are made in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese government developed the grading system for it. Like all tea grading, this one can be a bit complicated. This system is based on the taste of the brew, not on the leaf size or quality. Most oolong grading includes the following categories (plus some subcategories), from lowest to highest grade: 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.

Grading the Green and White Teas

Each Asian country has its own complex terminology for grading green and white teas. The system involves many categories and subcategories. For Chinese green tea, the grade is based on the age of the leaf before processing and the shape of the leaf after processing. Some Chinese green teas that have varying grades are Gunpowder, Imperial, and Young Hyson. Japanese green teas are graded by district, style, and cup quality. Some common grading terms used for green and white tea are: Extra Choicest, Choicest, Choice, Finest Fine, Good Medium, Medium, Good Common, Common, Nubs, Dust, and Fannings.

On our final page, you will learn how tea is produced.

To learn more about tea, see: