Everybody has heard of Orange Pekoe but few know that it is not a kind of tea but a size of leaf. There are names for other leaf sizes also, and these are often seen on labels or in catalogs of teas. To understand their meaning is to better understand the Orthodox manufacture of black tea.
Manufacture actually begins with plucking, which may be fine or coarse. Fine plucking means just two leaves and a bud; coarse plucking means taking any more than just this youngest end of each tea shoot. The bud is an unopened leaf at the tip of the shoot; many buds make for “tippy” tea. Just below the bud or tip is the youngest, most recently opened leaf which is called the pekoe leaf. Pekoe (“peck-o”) is from the Chinese word for white hair because the leaf is covered with silver down for forty-eight hours or so after first opening. The second leaf from the bud or tip is called (no one’s sure why) the Orange Pekoe leaf. The third, fourth and fifth leaves down the shoot are called Souchong leaf, which are plucked along with the younger ones only in coarse plucking, not good for black tea. In Taiwan and China they are used to make oolong teas. Below the Souchong are the maintenance leaves which should never be plucked at all. The more mature the leaf, the less flavor it contains.
Orthodox manufacture of black tea uses rolling machines to bruise and crush the withered green leaf so that its cells rupture and its juices will be exposed. After perhaps thirty minutes rolling, the leaf must ferment or oxidize. After oxidation or “fermentation” the leaf is fired or dried in oven-like machines. The end product consists of all sizes of leaf and leaf particle jumbled together. Because finer particles steep more quickly than larger, these different sizes must be separated. The tea is therefore sifted into different sizes or grades. This step is called leaf grading and the names of these grades designate nothing more than the size of the leaf. Grading means sorting, not quality judgement.
Orange Pekoe or OP, in practice, is the largest leaf grade of black tea (since souchong and pekoe grades are rarely marketed) and indicates the size of whole, i.e., unbroken leaf. If the tea maker wishes to emphasize the amount of golden bud an OP contains, he may grade it Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe or GFOP. If especially tippy, he would add a T, giving TGFOP. Certain Darjeeling estates carry this to extremes by adding an F (for Finest) in front – FTGFOP – or even SF (for Super-Fine) – SFTGFOP. (Ceylon OP of the sort would be labeled OP Extra Special.)
Everything smaller than OP falls into the broken grades – BOP means Broken Orange Pekoe, GBOP means Golden Broken Orange Pekoe, TGBOP means Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe, and so forth. A BOP Assam or Darjeeling may not only be cheaper than its FOP counterpart but may have more flavor too. Tea lovers do not judge a black tea’s goodness by its initials. One seldom sees the smallest grades, Fannings and Dust, which fill our tea bags, but in the trade they too have designations: PF for Pekoe Fannings, etc. A few other initials are sometimes encountered: CL or SP/CL translate Clonal or Special Clonal, which indicate the plant, not the leaf. Darjeeling designates its occasional green teas with a K preceding all other letters.
Photo “Tea Pluckers haputale” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Fazal Fausz and is being posted unaltered (source)
Photo “Static Charged Rolling Machine” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Christopher and is being posted unaltered (source)