quality basics 3: the myths of grades
There is a Western grading system given to conventional black tea productions basing on the appearance of the tealeaves. It is practiced by all commercial black tea traders in the world as a form of quality standard.
The label Orange Pekoe as seen in the supermarket tea tin is the name of one of the usual grades. It, by all means, has nothing to do with the fruit.
There are many theories as to how the name came about, but all understand that the word Pekoe is a deteriorated transliteration of the Amoy(3) dialect for “white downy shoots”(4), that describes the young leaf buds in the tea plant. The density of “pekoes” in a batch of tea has been used as a quality indicator. One theory of the origin of the name is that when the white pekoes, together with other leaves, are processed to make black tea, they turn to an orange red. Sadly the term now basically refers to a basic grade in black tea that neither has any orange colour in the dried leaves, nor obvious pekoe content.
grading: meaning and limitations
Another commonly seen grade is FOP — Flowery Orange Pekoe. There are two major different opinions as to what the word “flowery” refers to. It describes the aroma of the tea, as the word is used in wine, one saying goes. However, there are not that many black tea defined by this grade that I personally can experience that bouquet sensation. The Chinese version of the word, “hua”, however, has been used to describe the pluck and the shape of the produced tealeaves since antiquity. In fact, the Chinese names for some teas with reputation refer to the blossom, because of the appearance, e.g. Bai Mudan — White Peony. The reason is obvious — a pluck of the young shoot together with two leaves, i.e. a standard pluck in most regions, does look like a flower. It is logical to believe that with so many borrowed terms from the Chinese origin, “flowery” is just another one in a grading system that many still argue about its originality.
In fact, the names of all the other grades in this system refer solely to the appearance of the product, rather than taste quality (see side bar). Such is a demonstration of the linear thinking of the people who set up the system. Whether this system was one factor that is responsible for, over the years since the manufacturing mode took over much of tea producing, reducing tea to a standardizable product is open to debate. It has certainly not been universal for tea. Buyers have always been relying on professional tasting to decide for a stock rather than just the look. All seasoned people in the trade understand that the FTGFOP#1 from one producer/estate is worth a lot more than the same label from another.
The system, however widely it is used in the world of mass-produced black tea, has never been able to describe anything outside of it.
Other numbering and alphabet systems exist in different regions and different tea varieties, mostly for tea of mass-produced nature, such as generic versions of Sencha, Gunpowder, Oolongs, Puer etc, and I am not expanding on the topic here. The underlying theme is the same. Even in the world of fine teas, words such as special, premium, supreme, select, extra, fancy, or even royal, tribunal, imperial, etc are widely used with no real reference to quality and no comparative indications from one trader to next.
The consumers should therefore, be aware of the limitation of the descriptive accuracy of the few alphabets on the tin (or the alu pack etc) and learn to judge the value of a buy by the quality of the content.
In practice, a retailer normally ranks different selections of one variety of tea by way of price, no matter how he name the grade labels. It is also most likely that he carries at best only a couple of selections for each of his varieties to keep the inventory under management. Therefore, to acquire an optimum quality of a certain variety that suits both your epicurean and budget requirements, you may have to shop around.
TeaGuardian.com (Tea Guardian) is a self-financed, independent reference guide created with the initiative to promote the better understanding of tea, the daily beverage that so many have come to misunderstand. By sharing with the readers unbiased and in-depth information, we aim at empowering them with the ability to find and enjoy better quality tea for taste and for health. A lot of the information included can be helpful to people of the tea trade and the academics.
While we gladly receive any forms of support, including advertisements and other sponsorships, no such actions will in anyway affect our editorial direction or its independence.
This website is designed for smooth, non-obstructive reading. It is therefore recommended that it be viewed using modern browsers such as Opera, FireFox, Chrome or Safari. If you need to use IE, please update it to the latest version.