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Tea Leaf Grading

Tea leaf grading terminology is complex and is used to grade tea mainly on the appearance of the leaves.  It used to be thought that the better the leaf grade, the better the tea.  This is not necessarily the case because quality of tea is decided by many additional factors, including soil type, the environmental conditions at time of harvest, tea plant cultivar and so on. This can mean a tea with a lower leaf grade can actually be better and more expensive than similar tea described with the top leaf quality.

To make matters more confusing, tea leaf grading terminology is different depending on which country you are in with India, Sri Lankan and Kenya grading terminology differing in definition.

In China, Japan and Taiwan the grading systems are not as rigid with the grades of tea being more descriptive such as Special Grade, Pre-Qing Ming (Before the Rains), or simply a general assessment of quality.

CTC

CTC tea actually refers to a method of processing black tea. Named for the process, "crush, tear, curl" (sometimes called "cut, tear, curl") in which black tea leaves are run through a series of cylindrical rollers. The rollers have hundreds of sharp teeth that crush, tear, and curl the leaves. The rollers produce small, hard pellets made of tea. This CTC method is different from standard tea manufacturing, in which the tea leaves are simply rolled into strips. CTC tea is sieved to determine its grade, with the smallest particles falling through and being graded as Dust.

 Grade Meaning
Broken leaf Larger CTC tea, no dust
Fannings Smaller particle size
Dust Smallest particles of tea, usually made as a byproduct that can be used in teabags

 

Orthodox

This is the overall term for teas not processed using the CTC method. More traditional, this method generally gives more complex teas with a broader range of flavours. It is much more labour intensive, however, requiring the hand-picking of the top two leaves and a bud from the tea plants, followed by processing that can be somewhat automated for lower grades but also generally requires a great deal of craftsmanship as well.

Orthodox teas can be full leaf or broken leaf, and within those two there are many different grades and ratings. As with grading as a whole, there is a misconception that broken leaf teas are automatically worse than full leaf teas, and also that a higher leaf grade will always taste better than a lower leaf grade. Broken leaf teas are often more intense, maltier or more tannic than a full leaf example, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Full leaf teas tend towards more complex but also more subtle flavours, which is sometimes desirable but not always ideal. Likewise, the leaf grade refers to the physical condition of the tea leaf itself and says very little about what the resulting flavour will be.

A standard Orange Pekoe from an excellent estate in prime tea growing terrain backed up with great skill and expertise will often taste better in the cup than a higher grade example from a newer, less experienced or simply less fortunate estate.

India

The Indian grading system is the most widely known and often forms the basis for the systems used elsewhere, adding to the confusion. For full leaf teas, the system begins at Orange Pekoe, a grade that here simply indicates the presence of full leaves. From there, qualifiers are added to indicate increasing quality.

 Grade Meaning
Flowery Orange Pekoe Large leaves with intact buds
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Some golden tips on the leaves are present
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Many golden tips are present
Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Particularly high grade, no leaf damage
Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Meets all the standards above, and consists of the very finest examples from the crop

 

The broken leaf grading system is similar, beginning at Broken Orange Pekoe, indicating a tea that was full-leaf and was then crushed after drying to break up the leaves. This might be done either to help release the maltier flavours or to help physically fit the tea into teabags. Higher grades of broken leaf tea follow the same pattern as the full leaf teas.

 Grade Meaning
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Intact buds among the broken leaves
Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Golden tips present
Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Many golden tips present
Special Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Finest example of a broken leaf tea

Below the quality of Orange Pekoe grade tea, there are teas rated as Fannings and Dust. Fannings are small particle broken leaf teas, while Dust indicates the lowest quality, smallest particles. In India these grades are usually only used in teabags.

Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan system is similar to the Indian grading system for the broken leaf Ceylon teas. For full leaf teas, though, it centres on Orange Pekoe grade tea as a high quality example and adds or removes qualifiers to distinguish both higher and lower grades.

 Grade Meaning
Orange Pekoe 1 A wiry, thin leaf example of a high quality tea
Orange Pekoe A A high quality tea with large, open leaves
Pekoe A twisted small leaf falling short of Orange Pekoe grade
Pekoe 1 A particularly wiry twisted leaf
Broken Orange Pekoe Small or broken leaves otherwise of Orange Pekoe grade
Broken Orange Pekoe 1 Thin and wiry example of Broken Orange Pekoe
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe High grade Broken Orange Pekoe with some leaf tips
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1 Smaller and more wiry example of FBOP
Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings Broken leaf tea with a smaller leaf particle size than BOP
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings BOPF with leaf tips present
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings 1 Similar to the FBOPF but consisting of more leaf tips
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings Special A higher grade example with more and better tips present
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings Extra Special
Further distinction of highest grade examples

 

It is notably difficult to identify from this grading system exactly which tea will be the best in the cup. Generally speaking, Orange Pekoe A is the highest grade when looking for whole leaves carefully processed, but in many cases the richest, most complex flavours come from Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Ceylon teas.

Kenya

Kenyan teas are almost exclusively CTC. There is an emerging Orthodox production industry, but these growers tend to use the same grades as Indian producers. For CTC teas, there are several grades of quality as follows. Generally these teas are found in blends as a way to add a robust, malty taste to a 

 Grade Meaning
Dust Smallest grade of tea, a fine powder that can be used in teabags for additional strength
Dust 1 A higher quality Dust grade tea
Pekoe Dust A rich, aromatic Dust grade tea
Pekoe Fannings A tea with a sharp aroma and robust flavour, made of small particles of leaf
Pekoe Fannings 1 A higher grade Fannings tea with a balanced flavour and aroma.
Broken Pekoe A rich, malty tea, intact enough to grade as a broken leaf tea
Broken Pekoe 1 A lighter bodied tea made from tender young bud leaves.