Tea Grading vs Quality

by Imperial Tea Garden September 28, 2017

Tea Grading vs Quality

If you are reading this article, chances are you still have a lot of questions about tea and some of the terms that are used when grading loose leaf tea.  There is a good explanation for this and its not your fault.  The confusion exists because there are no international standardized methods used to grade loose leaf tea.  This is a good thing because like wine, tea is dependent upon many factors other than just the plant stock or the location of the plant leaves from which it is harvested. Climate, soil, rainfall, elevation and harvesting conditions all play a role in determining the finished product.  After all, the only thing that matters when you decide to brew your morning cup of tea is -

A Great Tasting Cup of Tea!

From growing the tea bushes, harvesting the shoots and manufacturing through packaging - any mishap can greatly affect the outcome of the finished product. So it is with great respect, we hold those who carried on the tea tradition for these last few thousand years. Finding a tea type, growing region, tea estate or a specific loose leaf tea is the method or process we use to determine what teas we consume.  Many personal likes and dislikes will come into play when determining which teas you will ultimately decide to drink.  In my opinion, the journey of discovery is the best part. In order to fully understand what makes a quality tea, we must first we discern the differences between white tea, green tea, oolong tea and black tea.  Although all tea comes from the same plant species (Camellia Sinensis), how it is processed after harvesting immediately puts it into one these major classifications but has very little to due with overall quality but a lot to due with taste.  These are generalization however, white tea is often lighter and more delicate because it is usually comprised of the top young shoots or two leaves and a bud and will have descriptions like silver needle. There are many high quality green teas like White Eagle Long Life, but green tea is usually slightly more vegetative in flavor than white tea.  The widest selection will range within oolong teas because of the oxidation process may vary from 15 - 85%. Then there are black teas which are 100% or fully oxidized resulting in typically more full bodied teas.

Click here for reading more Information on the types of teas

Loose leaf teas are from the same plant and then broken down into categories based on how they are processed but that is where the commonalities end with very little to do with the quality of the finished product.  How do you know a good green tea versus a good quality black tea? There are some clues hidden in the label and descriptions but a lot of it has to do with the location of the leaves and when they are harvested.  The correct term for this is "flush" and will refer to the number of harvests during the growing season. 

Green Tea vs Black Tea

Green Tea and black tea have absolutely no commonality in tea terms and the grading system used to associate a teas quality. To complicate matters further, green tea from China and Japan have very little in common even though it is believed that tea migrated from China to Japan.  With Chinese teas a number is often associated with the tea where 1 being the best and quality goes down from there.  Teas are also named by their physical appearnce and geographic location. In Japan terms are used like Kukicha (made from twigs and stems) Bancha, Sencha and Gyokuro and give a better representation of the finished quality where Kukicha is the lower than Bancha which is lower than Sencha ect., however many tea drinkers have really enjoyed a roasted Kukicha twig tea and disliked a few Sencha green teas along their journey!

Geographic Region

China is the birth place of tea and produced many green teas and experimented with slight processing techniques in the processing method by varying the length of time used to wither the leaves after harvesting over many centuries.  This later resulted in oolong or black dragon tea.  Black tea was developed much later and was known as Hong Cha or red tea and quickly gained popularity in England and Europe.

Location of the Leaf

Now we have discussed the types of teas, location of the harvested leaf but... that does little to describe the best way to grade the quality of the tea.  One of the methods used by the British tea plantations and growing regions of India and Sri Lanka (Formerly called Ceylon) was a term called Flowery Orange Pekoe and this was based on the location of the tea leaf/particle size. This method is used for black tea being shipped to England and the Americas and is still in use today.

If you look at a branch of the tea bush, the new growth or growing tip is considered Flowery Orange Pekoe or FOP for short.  The size of the tea leaves get larger as you go down the branch and are ranked in the following order.

  1. Flowery Orange Pekoe (Tip or New Growth)
  2. Orange Pekoe
  3. Pekoe
  4. Pekoe Souchong
  5. Souchong

Size of the Finished Product

The following list adds particle size as well as the location of the harvested tea leaf.

 D – Dust

The smallest of particles left after sifting.  Often used in tea bags to infuse rapidly and make a strong and robust brew.

F – Fanning
Very small, broken leaf, slightly larger than dust.

S – Souchong
The largest leaves located closest to the bottom of the branch.  These course leaves are twisted lengthwise and often used for various Chinese smoked teas.

P or PEK – Pekoe
Pekoe grade tea leaves are slightly less coarse and smaller than souchong

OP – Orange Pekoe
Orange Pekoe grades are leaves plucked from near the end of a branch.  Besides the buds and flowers, they are youngest and smallest of tea leaves on a branch.

BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe
The leaves in broken grades of orange pekoe tea are reduced in size usually by machine. This allows for more surface area, causing the tea to infuse faster than whole leaf varieties.

FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
This orange pekoe grade also includes some “tips” or leaf buds.

FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
This grade of tea would refer to broken orange pekoe with the addition of a small portion of “tips.”

GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
Often referred to flowery orange pekoe with “tips” and flowers that are golden in color.

TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
A larger ratio of golden tips would be included in this classification of flowery orange pekoe.

FTGFOP – Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
Tea falling into this classification are usually a premier estate’s finest teas.  Mostly
comprised of golden flowers, leaf buds, and the youngest tea leaves.

....So in conclusion, what makes a quality tea?  A combination of all of these factors and the skill and craftsmanship of the harvester, manufacturing technique, packaging and storage and distribution.  Learn some of the tea terminology by visiting the many informational pages on our online tea store.  When you order your teas from Imperial Tea Garden, we have already done a lot of the work for you.  Although everyone's tastes vary, we offer a loose leaf tea for everyone and in most price ranges. 




Imperial Tea Garden
Imperial Tea Garden


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