Where does Tea come from & how is it graded?

Tea was reportedly created over 5,000 years ago in China. The tea comes from the  Camellia Sinensis plant (a species of Evergreen) which is native to China but also grown in other parts of the world. So Tea is now grown in several Asian countries. Rooibos is grown in Africa and Yerba Mate in South America. These do not come from the Camellia Sinensis plant and are considered tisanes or herbal drinks even though they are called tea.


Now most tea plants have a growth period in warmer months and a dormant period during the winter. Teas are typically harvested at least once or twice a year. The first harvest (first flush) is during the spring and the second harvest (second flush) is during the summer and so on.  In cooler conditions at higher elevations, harvesting seasons can change.

Tea’s quality and taste is influenced by both the environment and how and when the tea is processed. Tea plants typically grow best in acidic soil and regions with heavy rainfall (around 40 inches per year), however they can be grown anywhere from sea level to altitudes as high as 1.3 miles above sea level. That means these processes have a direct effect on the market price.

Processing

Tea is typically handpicked so as not to damage the leaf. This can be an expensive process. So growers keep the plants in the early stage of growth by constantly pruning and picking buds and leaves from the top of the plant. Once a bud is picked or a leaf is cut, it will began to oxidize so when enough leaves are gathered, they are taken directly to the factory for processing. 

What is oxidation?  The best way that I know to describe oxidation for tea is this, for instance; When oxygen or air reaches the freshly cut stem or bud of the leaf, it will start to “brown” like an apple or banana.  The Collins dictionary describes oxidation as a process in which a chemical substance changes because of the addition of oxygen.

The Four Main Types

Although teas come in many different varieties, there are four main types white, black, green and oolong tea. To clarify, all tea comes from the same type of plant. THowever, the specific variety of the plant and the way it is processed and oxidized will determine which tea is made.

White and Black Tea

White tea is made using the first buds and young leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant and they are usually only plucked once a year. The little buds that form are covered with little silver hairs so that make the young leaves appear white. The leaves are steamed or fried to stop oxidation and then dried. It is the least processed of teas and has a high concentrations of catechins which are present in fresh tea leaves. The buds can also be shielded from sunlight to reduce chlorophyll production.

Black tea is made using whole leaves that are cut and allowed to wither.  Withering occurs when a leaf is cut.  It is the natural process of wilting.  So controlled withering caused reduced moisture or water in the leaf. Then the leaves are set aside to dry and continue to oxidize. This causes the chemical composition of the leaf to change. The longer the leaves are allowed to oxidize, the darker the leaves will be. A lengthy oxidation process is what gives black tea its distinct, bold flavor.

Green and Oolong Tea

Green tea begins in the same way as black tea but the amount of time allowed for oxidation is different, which gives you drastically different results. The leaves are sometimes only allowed to wither slightly.  They are then either pan-fired, oven-dried or steamed to prevent further oxidation. These leaves keep their green color and produce a lighter, more grassy taste.

Oolong tea is made using buds at the top mature bushes. They can be harvested 3 or 4 times a year and quality varies depending on the season. Spring and autumn flusher are higher quality that summer flushes. Leaves picked during early spring are generally considered to have the highest quality. The most exotic Oolong tea, Champagne Oolong, uses younger leaves consisting of one-bud-and-two-leaf. The Harvesting is similar to green and white tea.

How is Tea Graded?

 

This can be a bit confusing. Just remember that typically only black tea is graded (and not all brands) and there is no one universal system. It is commonly used in loose-leaf tea by retailers who specialize in British and other Western tea cultures.  So grades can very based on processing and even manufacturing because tea grades are designated by the producers.

For example in Japan grading is ranked downwards: Extra Choicest, Choicest, Choice, Finest, Fine, Good Medium, Medium, Good Common, Common, Nubs, to Fannings and Dust. While in China, teas are usually graded by number, with one being the highest or best grade, all the way down to 9. This is also based on the shape and style of the leaf as well as how it is processed.

The most widely-used grading terms are the ones applied to teas produced in places like India, Sri Lanka, Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, South America and Europe. That being said, typically the higher the grade and the better the quality, the better the price.

Whole leaf tea

Whole leaf tea refers to tea that has not been broken or torn during production. So sizes and shape of the leaf varies widely, so this determines both the types of leaves used and how it is processed. As a result this will affect pricing.

  • SFTGFOP1 – Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – Grade 1 – Usually the highest grade of tea for sale. Typically Darjeelings from India or teas from Assam, Nepal or other regions in that area
  • SFTGFOP – Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FTGFOP1 – Fine/Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Grade 1
  • FTGFOP – Fine/Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • TGFOP1 – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Grade One
  • TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – These teas and above are usually only produced in Assam, Darjeeling, and surrounding Himalayan regions, uncommonly in Yunnan province. This grade is common in Assam and Darjeeling teas.
  • GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – This grade usually has a larger portion of the tip. This grade is common among African teas, especially Kenyan teas.
  • FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • OP – Orange Pekoe – This is the most common grade of black tea. So it is considered a “medium” grade tea and if you find “Orange Pekoe” on a teabags, they are usually broken, fannings, and or dust.
  • OPA – Orange Pekoe A, A long-leaf tea most common in Ceylon black tea, and typically sold in Russian and Middle Eastern cultures.
  • FP – Flowery Pekoe
  • P – Pekoe
  • S – Souchong

Broken-leaf tea

 

Broken-leaf means the tea has been torn or broken into recognizable sizes.

  • BOP1 – Broken Orange Pekoe One
  • GFBOP – Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • TGFBOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • TGFBOP1 – Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Grade One
  • BS – Broken Souchong
  • BPS – Broken Pekoe Souchong
  • GBOP – Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
    FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe – A standard grade of broken-leaf tea

 

Fannings

These are finely-broken pieces of the leaf that still have a recognizable coarse texture. As a result, Fannings and Dust are typically used in most tea bags.

  • FBOPF – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • Fannings Extra Special – This is the highest grade of fannings and usually occurring in Ceylon teas.
  • FBOPF – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
  • TBOPF – Tippy Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings – A rarely used grade. A high grade of fannings, higher in tips, but more broken than FBOPF.
  • BOPF – Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
  • FOF – Flowery Orange Fannings
  • GOF – Golden Orange Fannings

Dust

Dust is a fine powder, so it is much finer than fannings, however it is made of tea particles left over from producing higher grades. (This does not include Matchas)

  • OPD – Orange Pekoe Dust
  • BOPD – Broken Orange Pekoe Dust
  • BOPFD – Broken Orange Pekoe Fine Dust
  • FD – Fine Dust
  • D-A – Dust A
  • Spl. D – Special Dust
  • GD – Golden Dust
  • OD – Orthodox Dust

Size, quality and positioning are also important when plucking aleaf or bud from the plant. Therefore if we were to start at the very tip, then this is the type of tea that we would want to process:

Tip – Flowery Orange Pekoe
Second Leaf – Orange Pekoe
Third Leaf – Pekoe
Fourth Leaf – Pekoe Souchong
Fifth Leaf – Souchong
Sixth Leaf – Congou
Seventh Leaf – Bohea

This is taken from a Chinese sliding scale and Souchong, Congou, and Bohea are generally Chinese black teas.

So typically older and larger leaves have a more distinguished taste. Whereas, your much younger leaves are very delicate and floral. Most importantly this gives you the ability to create a multitude of taste.