Grades of Tea

Wikipedia: Orange_pekoe#Manufacture_and_grades
Last Updated: Oct. 18, 2018
Loose-Leaf Assam FTGFOP1 Black Tea, Tonganagaon Estate, © Akuppa John Wigham, CC BY 2.0.
Tea is broken into various grades based on the production process. There are different systems for tea grading, but one particular system, using letters, is in fairly widespread use. Broadly, tea is classified as Orthodox or CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl).

What teas and companies use this system?

This grading system is typically only used for black tea, and even then, not for all black teas. It is more common in loose-leaf tea sold by specialized tea retailers with a focus on British and other Western tea cultures. Green tea, oolongs, white tea, and black teas produced in China and Taiwan tend not to use this system. Marketers of teabags rarely advertise the grade of their tea, except for the common grade of orange pekoe.

What does grade mean?

Most of the information of this grading system of tea pertains only to leaf size. Although whole-leaf teas are often presented as higher quality, more desirable, and are often more expensive, it is impossible to generalize. Some broken-leaf teas can be outstanding, just as whole-leaf teas can be mediocre.

The grade reflects the caffeine content of a tea to a large degree. Because leaf buds contain more caffeine than mature leaves, tippy teas like TGFBOP contain more caffeine than OP or FOP grades; similarly, Souchong grades, made out of larger, older leaves contain even less caffeine. Grade also affects brewing. Whole-leaf teas tend to need longer infusion times, whereas broken leaf teas require shorter steeping, and fannings and dust infuse the fastest. Whole-leaf teas are also best for multiple infusions, although most of the teas that are used for multiple infusions are not graded according to the system on this page.

The letter abbreviations can also be confusing, as the letter F can mean "Flowery", "Fine", or "Fannings".

This Keemun Black Tea is FTGFOP grade, a high grade of tea, which is reflected in the fully-intact leaves. © Whiteness (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 4.0.

Grades of Orthodox Tea

Whole leaf tea

Whole leaf tea refers to tea that has not been broken or torn during production. The size and shape of the leaf varies widely, both as a function both of the types of leaves used, and how it is processed.The way these grades are applied can be inconsistent across different regions. Although many Chinese teas could be graded by this system (like the Keemun pictured above), few of them are sold or marketed with this labeling scheme. Of Chinese teas, those from Yunnan are the most likely to be labeled by grade. But the highest-quality Yunnan teas are usually not graded in this way, and instead are labeled by village of production, harvest date, and often names reflecting leaf shape and style, see yunnan red for more on these teas.

Broken-leaf tea

Broken-leaf tea is tea that has been torn or broken, but is still in large enough pieces to be recognizable as pieces of leaf.

Fannings

Fannings are finely-broken pieces of tea leaf that still have a recognizable coarse texture; they are the grade of tea used in most tea bags.

Dust

Dust is a fine powder, much finer than fannings, made of tea particles left over from producing higher grades of tea. Tea made by pulverizing larger pieces of leaf or the tea plant, such as Matcha, is not classified as dust.Rarely, grades can be mixed, and labelled as such with the letter M. For example, BOPSM could be used to represent a broken-leaf mix of Orange Pekoe (BOP) and Souchong(S).

In practice, you will never see loose-leaf tea dust for sale; it is typically sold wholesale and packed into teabags. Because of its low grade, companies using it generally do not advertise that they are doing so, so you will not see dust grades displayed on tea bag packaging or labels.
Typical CTC Black Tea, © Naresh.limbu (Wikipedia), CC BY-SA 3.0.

Grades of CTC Tea

CTC (crush-tear-curl) tea is tea that has been produced by a modern, mechanical process that tears the leaf in order to induce oxidation, rather than manually rolling it to bruise the leaf, as in the production of orthodox tea. Because the CTC process breaks the leaf, there is no whole-leaf CTC tea, and thus CTC tea is divided into broken-leaf, fannings, and dust. CTC is widely regarded as inferior, and the primary benefit is its lower cost of production, due to automation, although like other teas, CTC tea still varies widely in quality.

It is less common for tea drinkers to see CTC tea graded in tea for sale in stores or online. CTC tea grades include, for broken leaf tea, BP, BOP, BPS, BP1, and FP, and for fannings, OF, PF, and BOPF. There are a myriad of grades for CTC dust.

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