If you’re at all interested in tea, you’ve probably heard the term ‘orange pekoe’ (or OP) before. This is a tea grade; for instance, a tea may also be graded Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (or FTGFOP), which is one of the highest grades a tea can achieve (which is probably why FTGFOP is sometimes known instead as ‘Far Too Good For Ordinary People‘).
Interestingly, and rather contrary to what some will tell you, orange pekoe doesn’t have anything to do with orange notes, orange flavouring, or any oranges at all. It is instead a quirk of language use, and actually only tells us that the tea is a basic medium-leaf variety of average quality. Teas carrying this grade are plain tea; the herbs that may have been combined with them later are not a part of this grading system, and have no effect on the overall grade of the lone tea.
This grading system is used for the tea trade that occurs in the West, and applies mostly to teas that have been grown in current and former British colonies such as Sri Lanka and India. Black teas are the only types of tea that use this system. It is relatively unknown in most parts of China.
The term ‘pekoe’ refers to silver downy hairs found on both the buds of camellia sinensis, and the leaves. It is possible that it originated as a mispronunciation of the Chinese word that was used for a tea called “white down”. ‘Orange’ seems to have come from either the fact that finished black tea can have a bright orange tinge to it, or due to the Dutch marketing the tea as orange when they transported it to Europe, so as to make the tea sound royal (after the House of Oranje Nassau).