Oxidation, the process of exposing tealeaves to oxygen after harvesting, is one of the biggest factors influencing tea’s flavor. Tealeaves that will become green tea, for example, are briefly cooked using either steam or dry heat. The drying process “seals” the leaf and captures the plants original green color and fresh flavor. Tealeaves that will become black tea, on the other hand, are laid out to wither (which allows most of the water to evaporate) until they are pliable enough to be rolled. The leaves are then rolled (either by hand or machine) which cracks the surface of the leaf and releases juices and enzymes. The bruised and sticky leaves, whose juices are now exposed to air, are spread out and allowed to turn brown. This natural process, called oxidation, is similar to the ripening of fruit. Oolong tea is partially oxidized (in between green and black tea) while white tea is left virtually untouched. After the leaves are oxidized, they are fired to “seal” and dry the leaf--preventing any further changes.
CHANGING FLAVOR AND AROMA
The oxidation process changes tea's color and flavor and gives it more body. By selectively exposing the tealeaves to oxygen, tea producers can bring out certain flavors and aromas. In other words, this oxidation process will determine many of the tea’s flavor characteristics as well as whether the tea will end up as white, green, oolong or black.
Although there is no set-standard for grading teas, buyers and sellers within the tea industry often classify teas into categories such as leaf size, growing elevation, region and style.
GRADING BY SIZE
Black teas, predominantly those from India, are often classified by grades that describe the appearance, shape and size of the leaf. Because the grading system does not measure flavor (which is, of course, what really matters in the end), a tea’s grade does not necessarily indicate quality. However, the grading system offers a good “first introduction” before buyers are able to see and taste the tea for themselves.
The grading system is based on the term Orange Pekoe (OP). Contrary to popular belief, Orange Pekoe is not orange flavored tea. In fact, it does not refer to a particular flavor, color or even quality. The term Orange Pekoe is nothing more than a designation of leaf size. Any type of tea from anywhere in the world could be Orange Pekoe—as long as it is the right size.
As an interesting bit of history, the term “Orange” comes from the clever marketing strategies of old Dutch tea importers who, in an effort to suggest their teas were so exceptional they were worthy of royalty, named this leaf grade after the royal family, the House of Orange. The term “Pekoe” was a corruption or mispronunciation of the Chinese word “Bai Hao,” which means “white tip,” and refers to the high-quality, delicate, unfurled leaf bud covered with white down.
This grading system uses the following initials:
OP (Orange Pekoe): This leaf grade consists of whole leaves that are large enough they will not pass through a sieve of a particular width. OP is, in practice, the largest leaf grade for black tea since larger leaf grades such as souchong (large ragged coarse pieces) and pekoe (short, coarse leaves) are rarely marketed.
PF (Pekoe Fannings): Fannings are the lowest grade in the classification of tea. Also known as tea dust, fannings are small particles of tealeaves used almost exclusively in tea bag production.
BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe): Broken Orange Pekoe consists of small tealeaves or pieces of larger tealeaves.
FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe): The word “flowery” denotes tea made from the end bud and first two leaves of each new shoot. FOP contains fine, tender young leaves that have been rolled with a good balance of delicate leaf buds.
T (Tippy): This term describes tea that has a high proportion of leaves that come from the tip, or bud, of the tea plant. The young tips and buds are more nutrient dense and often have a better, more complex flavor than older leaves. Therefore, teas made from the tips of the tea plant are very desirable. Tips are often recognized by the presence of fine, down-like hair on the leaf.
G (Golden): This term describes the golden coloring often found on the tips or buds early in the growing season. The presence of golden tips is highly sought after and is an indicator of quality. (In black teas, the tips appear golden in color. In white and green teas, these leaf tips have a silver or white appearance).
These terms can be combined to further describe the leaf. Here are some examples:
GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): is FOP with golden tips—the very end of the golden yellow leaf buds.
TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): has a large proportion of golden tips.
FTGFOP (Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: describes an exceptionally high-quality FOP.
SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: is the very best classification.
A joke among tea aficionados is that FTGFOP stands for “Far Too Good For Ordinary People.”
GRADING BY REGION
In addition to grading leaf size using the initials above, Indian teas are further classified by region. This is because, as with fine wine, each tea-producing region yields teas with flavor profiles and characteristics unique to that part of the country. The region-of-origin gives buyers an indication of what to expect in terms of flavor. For example, Assam and Darjeeling are 2 of the most famous tea producing regions in India, each with distinctively different flavor profiles.
GRADING BY ELEVATION
Teas from Sri Lanka (often called Ceylon, which was the country’s former name) are not distinguished by region, but instead by the altitudes at which the teas are grown: low grown (0-1,800 feet), medium grown (1,800 -3,400 feet), or high grown (3,400 feet to 7,400 feet). Because altitude affects the growth, chemistry and flavor of the leaf, altitude can also be an indicator of taste and quality.
GRADING BY APPEARANCE AND STYLE
Considered the “birthplace of tea” and the largest tea producing country, teas from China are not sold under regional garden names such as Indian Darjeelings or Assams or by elevation (although region and elevation are meaningful and still considered), but are instead given creative names describing their appearance and style.
For example, pearl teas (such as Jasmine Pearl) are named for their shape, in which the first 2 leaves and bud of the tea plant are rolled into small pearls that bloom in hot water. Silver Needle, the highest grade of white tea, is named for its long, flat, needle-like shape covered in a delicate, silver-white down.
Japan follows a similar grading system, categorizing teas based on their style, leaf shape and production method. For example, Sencha is a lightly steamed fresh green tea with a rich, thick, grassy flavor. The addition of toasted rice turns Sencha into Genmaicha. Bancha is a traditional style made from older leaves and stems from the autumnal and winter harvests. Hojicha is a roasted green tea, with a smooth, toasty flavor and amber-colored leaf.
Although the grading systems outlined above (which define leaf size, appearance, elevation, region-of-origin and production style) give us an idea of what to expect, teas within each category vary in tremendously in quality.