How Tea is Graded

What All Those Letters Mean

Image of tea grading at a high quality level

In the world of tea there are many different varieties that we can drink. Each of these types of tea goes through a process that is known as tea grading. The Tea Grade assigned is a direct reflection of the quality value given to the tea. At the current moment the process of tea grading which is used is one which was developed for black tea types only. This grading follows an internationally accepted and standardized process.

Other teas such as Green Tea and Oolong Tea go through entirely different grading processes. For these types of tea the grading will change from tea type to type, from country to country and from region to region. There is no international standard of tea grading for these types of tea. Additionally you will also find that different growers of these other tea varieties have their own system of grading tea. All of this can make for a confusing jumble of information. So for the moment let's concentrate on how the international market grades black tea.

Tea Grading factors

Tea grading is affected by and based on 2 key factors. These factors are;

  1. The size of the tea leaves and whether they are whole tea leaves or cut
  2. The method of tea production

As for the size of the tea leaves, the standard dictates that the whole larger tea leaves receive a higher grading as opposed to smaller and cut leaves. Also, the smaller the cut of the leaf the lower grade that is given to the tea. For example Tea Fannings and Dust, as used in tea bags, have the lowest grading for quality.

There are two methods of tea production on which grading is based. One method is for teas produced by hand using the traditional processes with little or limited use of machinery. The second and modern way uses machines. Tea produced with the later production method will gain a lower grad. This is mainly due to the fact that tea produced by mechanical means results in damage to the tea leaves. The tea grading process will take all of this into account.

In addition to these factors tests are carried out of a scientific nature and also of a subjective nature. The scientific testing will analyze the chemical composition of the tea and in some instances an "electronic nose" is utilized in an attempt to automate some of the older more subjective human evaluation of taste and aroma. The subjective tests are carried out exclusively by expert tea tasters and the evaluation is a result of many years of training and experience.

Tea Grades

In the tea grading system there are five main grades used to classify tea and these in turn can be further sub categorized into two important qualities.

The five main tea grading classifications starting from the lowest quality grade are;

  • D - Dust: Tea at this grading level consists of tea dust and very small pieces of tea leaves. This type of tea is the lowest grade of tea available and the cheapest on the market.
  • Fanning: Consists mainly of very small tea leaf pieces and again is considered to be of low grade.
  • BOP - Broken Orange Pekoe: This is the mid grading of tea and tea at this grade will consist of either pieces of larger tea leaves or smaller whole tea leaves.
  • OP - Orange Pekoe: Tea included at this grade will be made of larger sized whole tea leaves. However the bud or flowering bud of the tea plant will not be present.
  • FOP - Flowery Orange Pekoe: This is the highest grade of the five main classifications and contains only large whole leaves and the flowering portion of the plant.

And the two main sub categories important to the quality of tea are;

  1. Golden: Designating that the leaves are of a golden hue and of superior quality.
  2. Tippy: Which designates that young tea buds are present within the tea in abundance.

If you examine the methodology behind tea grading you will find that each of these grades of tea have been based on the size and quality of the tea. This is because size affects the brewing process. In short when tea is brewed you will find that the small pieces will brew much quicker than the larger pieces and produce a less flavorsome tea. This is the reason that many tea bags will use Fannings or Dust (and of course due to the cost). And finally in for the purpose of tea grading you will find that whole leaf tea is seen as having a better taste than broken pieces.

For grading accurately, the size of the tea or tea leaf needs to be consistent and part of the production process usually insures that only particular sized particles will flow through into specific tea production processes. This is achieved by the use of a grading mesh that will allow only certain grades (sizes) of tea to pass through. In this way the tea is sorted into its grades ready for evaluation.

Finally three further super categories can be seen when a tea is of exceptional quality. These are applied in only very select circumstances and currently I know of only two grades of tea using the "F" prefixed, standing for Finest and "S" prefixed standing for Special. These two are;

  1. FTGFOP : Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  2. SFTGFOP : Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe

Further Tea Grading Info

This page contains a comprehensive list of many if not all of the different grades available today and a short description of each;

  • » Different Tea Grades

And let us end with an interesting anecdote. The two prefixed grades "F" and "S" stated above are applied only to TGFOP teas. This usually stands for Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, however in tea circles this is also said to stand for Too Good For Ordinary People.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is not intended to replace the diagnosis, treatment, consultation and services of a qualified Medical Practitioner. All information presented is in summary form and intended only for informational purposes. Always seek immediate medical attention for any illness you may have and never disregard the advice from qualified Medical Practitioners as something you have read on this site (or related sites) could be misinterpreted.

Silver Tips

  • What is Choppy Tea? During tea grading if a tea can not be graded accurately into a whole leaf, broken leaf or dust as it contains a variety of leaf sizes the tea will be additionally labeled as "Choppy".

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