• Ross Thomson

How should tea leaves be graded?

TGFBOP, TGFOP, BOP, PD this is how black tea has been graded, particularly in the Western World, since tea began commercial production. This system has nothing to do with sensory features of tea but instead the type of leaves used. Places like China and Japan have their own grading system which are more focused on the quality of the tea and how it was manufactured. However, black teas from countries like India and Sri Lanka conform to the grading of the types of leaves used.


It is not a system that is easy to understand or particularly straightforward to learn. Much of this confusion comes from the fact that each producer decides their own tea grade. They also occasionally mess around with grades, giving an exalted grade to average tea.  So I thought it was time the tea world moved into the modern era, like how the metric system brought a standardised system of measurement for weight and length. I have created a new logical standardised grading system for tea which is easier to understand. But first, to illustrate my point, below are some of the commonly used tea grades:


Whole leaf grades OP—Orange Pekoe: main grade, consisting of long wiry leaf without tips OP1—more delicate than OP; long, wiry leaf with the light liquor OPA—bolder than OP; long leaf tea which ranges from tightly wound to almost open OPS—Orange Pekoe Superior: primarily from Indonesia, similar to OP FOP—Flowery Orange Pekoe: high-quality tea with a long leaf and few tips FOP1: limited to only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification GFOP—Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: higher proportion of tip than FOP.  TGFOP—Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: the highest proportion of tip TGFOP1—limited to only the highest quality leaves in the TGFOP classification FTGFOP[a]—Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: highest quality grade FTGFOP1 or STGFOP or SFTGFOP—limited to only the highe st quality leaves in the FTGFOP classification


Broken leaf grades BT—Broken Tea: Usually a black, open, fleshy leaf that is very bulky.  BP—Broken Pekoe: Most common broken pekoe grade.  BPS—Broken Pekoe Souchong: Broken Pekoe FP—Flowery Pekoe: High-quality pekoe. Usually coarser with a fleshier, broken leaf.  BOP—Broken Orange Pekoe: Main broken grade.  F BOP—Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe: Coarser and broken with some tips.  F BOP F—Finest Broken Orange Pekoe Flowery:  G BOP—Golden Broken Orange Pekoe: Second grade tea with uneven leaves and few tips. GF BOP1—Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: As above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the GFBOP classification. TGF BOP1—Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: High-quality leaves with a high proportion of tips. 


Fannings grades PF—Pekoe Fannings OF—Orange Fannings:  FOF—Flowery Orange Fannings:  GFOF—Golden Flowery Orange Fannings:  TGFOF—Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings. BOPF—Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings: Black-leaf tea with few added ingredients, uniform particle size, and no tips.

Dust grades D1—Dust  PD—Pekoe Dust PD1—Pekoe Dust 

This is not even all the grading terms, but as you can see it is illogical at times and overly complicated.



The R Tea Grading System

1) Leaf Grading

The nature of tea plucking is fairly straight forward: newer the leaves, the more tender they are and the better the quality. So small tips are the most valuable part compared to say a large congou leaf which would be less valuable. The natural progression of how a tea bush grows is that the newest leaves are at the top of the branch and get older as you work down the branch. For grading purposes we work from the tip to the trunk and assign a grade to each leaf. So for example:


Tips/Bud - Flowery Pekoe - A grade

1st Leaf - Orange Pekoe or 1st leaf - B grade

2nd Leaf - Pekoe - C grade

3rd Leaf - Pekoe Souchong - D grade

4th Leaf - Souchong - E grade

5th Leaf - Congou - F grade

6th Leaf - Bohea - G grade




These are the standard leaf grades but this grading system could go further to H, I, J if necessary. Although this is likely to be unnecessary as older leaves tend not to be used.



2) Leaf Size

This part of the grading is simple, whereby the size of leaf is quantified by a number between 1 and 5:


1 - Whole leaf

2 - Slightly broken but mainly large pieces

3 - Broken

4 - Fannings

5 - Dust


3) Quantity Class Descriptor

This final part of the process is to determine the quantities of each grade as most teas will be a mixture. Blends with a higher percentage of certain grades can highlight this through the class descriptor.

  1. Diamond - must contain at least 50% Grade A

  2. Platinum  - must contain at least 50% of Grade B and above

  3. Gold - must contain only grade C and above

  4. Silver - Contains grades D, E and above

  5. Bronze  - Grade F and below


An extra tippy tea could be distinguished from a tea with only a small percentage of tips. However, much to certain producers dismay, there will be no superfluous additions to these classification, such as; “diamond extra”, super diamond”. Every tea is part of one classification and that is it.




Examples

In order to see how this system would work in practise let's try converting some of the common grading types into the new system:


PF- C4 Silver (or Gold)

PD - C5 Silver (or Gold)

BOP - B3 Gold (or Platinum)

BOPD - B5 Gold (or Platinum)

BOPF - B4 Gold (or Platinum)

OP - B1 Platinum

FOP- AB1 Platinum

TGFOP - AB1 Diamond

TGFBOP - AB3 Platinum


To be or not R Tea Grading System

I believe this system would be better because it benefits the consumer rather than the marketing departments of companies. It separates the classification from the quality so buyers can actually understand the grades of the tea leaves they are buying. Prestige for the quality of the tea will not come from the classification but from the reputation the individual producer creates for their tea. A lower grade tea from a good producer is still likely to taste better than a higher grade tea from a bad producer. Grading should be an indication of what leaves are being used, not the actual quality. Real quality and desirable flavour profiles can not be objectivity determined by the producer as their only incentive is to make it sound as good as possible. This should always be determined by independent 3rd parties, so prestige is acquired through competitions and quality marks.


The only stumbling block to this system is getting anyone to notice it let alone adopt it. The tea industry is notoriously stubborn and old fashioned. The first step I can take myself is to add the new classification system to all teas used on this website, so that R-tea customers know what leaves they are buying.  Next step, the rest of the world.


On a final note, we here at R-tea only use leaves that are Grade C and above.

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