When buying tea, you might have spotted a confusing array of letters that appear to have been typed willy-nilly like SFTGFOP, BOP, etc. These are tea grades and we will help to demystify these acronyms.
WHAT IS A TEA GRADE?
The grade of a tea refers to the appearance of a tea’s leaves – in particular to their size and to the proportion of tips (also called ‘buds’) included in the leaf mix.
WHY IS THE LEAF SIZE IMPORTANT?
When it comes to tea, size matters – mainly for three reasons:
First and foremost, the grade of a tea influences the taste of a cup, so understanding the grading acronyms helps us make an informed decision when buying tea. If for instance you’re after a strong breakfast tea, look for teas with a “B” (which stands for “broken”) in the grade; or if you want a more delicate Black tea, look for teas with a “G” (“golden”, denoting a high quantity of buds) in the grade.
The grade of a tea also helps us get an indication of brewing time and what quantity of leaves we should use for a cup. Larger leaves require a longer brewing time, as a smaller surface area of the leaves is exposed to the water. And the larger the leaves, the more tea you need to brew.
That’s why, when buying a tea in a shop, you should ask the vendor to show you the leaf mix: a very uniform mix is an indication of a higher quality tea and gives you a more even brewing process.
IT’S A TIPPY MATTER
Tips, or buds, consist in young leaves that have been plucked before unfurling. They are the youngest leaves, and are hugely important in determining the taste of a tea. In a dry leaf mix, you can usually recognise them because they tend to be much brighter in colour (white, golden, or silvery) than normal leaves, and smaller.
Whilst fully grown leaves give a tea its strength, the tips give it more flavour intensity. They also add smoothness to a tea, and are therefore important in balancing out astringency in a tea. If you have ever tried the famous Silver Needle tea, which consists entirely of buds, you will have noticed how light, delicate and mellow it is. Now you know why!
Interestingly, the tips usually contain more caffeine than fully grown leaves. Why, you might wonder? It’s because the plant injects a lot more caffeine into its buds to protect them from insect attacks.
HOW ARE TEAS GRADED?
Before the tea is packed for shipping, similar-sized leaves are grouped together either manually or, more often, using mechanical sieves. The final leaf mix is then given a grade, which is useful when buying tea as it can be used to deduct the taste of a tea.
It is important to remember though that the grade of a tea is not necessarily a reflection of its quality. The latter depends on many other factors, such as the terroir, the climatic conditions in which the plant grew, when the leaves have been picked, the processing of the leaves, etc.
IS THERE A UNIVERSAL GRADING SYSTEM?
Alas, there is no global tea grading system. Instead, tea grades vary according to the country of origin and the type of tea.
China, Japan and Taiwan, for instance, tend to use words such as “toppest”, “finest”, or “extra fancy” to grade their teas, and in some cases they also use numbers from one to seven.
The most commonly used grading system in the West is the British Grading System. It is applied to Black teas from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, Africa, Malaysia, Argentina and Europe, so we will focus on that here.
Although you need to be beware that even within those regions the British Grading System isn’t always followed. Ultimately tea grades are more art than science,
HOW DOES THE BRITISH GRADING SYSTEM WORK?
The British Grading System, which is the one we use here in the West, breaks down teas into essentially two categories: whole leaf teas and broken leaf teas.
Below is a brief (and slightly over-simplified) overview of the most commonly used grading terms for whole leaf teas:
|Grade||Deciphered||In simple terms|
|OP||Orange Pekoe||Refers to the presence of whole leaves. Tips are not part of the mix.|
|FOP||Flowery Orange Pekoe||Made from the first two leaves and a bud.|
|GFOP||Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||Golden-coloured tips are part of the leaf mix.|
|TGFOP||Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||FOP with a large amount of tips.|
|FTGFOP||Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||An even higher amount of tips is included.|
|SFTGFOP||Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||A very fine tea, with a particularly high amount of tips included.|
|SFTGFOP1||Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One||A truly unique tea, which an unusually high amount of tips.|
Broken leaf teas follow a similar classification system, but the letter “B” (which stands for “broken”) is added to the name. BOP, for example, stands for “Broken Orange Pekoe”; There is FBOP, GBOP, TGBOP, and – at the bottom of the ladder – the “F”-grade, which stands for “Fannings”. Fannings is what you usually get in tea bags.
A word on Dust and Fannings: it’s a common myth that these two low grades of tea make a terrible brew. That’s not quite right. They certainly don’t make a great brew, but nonetheless an acceptable brew.
To summarise: the grade of a tea refers to the appearance of the leaf mix, and gives tea buyers – be they consumers, retailers or wholesalers – an indication of the taste of a tea before buying it.
A tea grade can also help us estimate roughly what quantity of leaves we should put into our cup and whether the leaves require a longer or shorter brewing time.
Last but not least, through the grade of a tea we can make a wild guess as to whether a tea will contain higher or lower amounts of caffeine.
It is important, however, to remember that the tea grade does not necessarily reflect upon the quality of a tea – many other factors, such as the terroir and the processing method, contribute to that.
Hopefully we have helped demistify the complex acronyms that make up the grade of a tea! If you have any questions please feel free to contact us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, or simply drop us a line at email@example.com and we’ll be happy to help.
If you’re curious about tea and want to learn more about it, register for our tea tasting subscription! Designed by a professional Tea Sommelier, it is the perfect introduction to the fascinating world of tea. Find out more
Here’s to good tea!