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).
If you are lucky enough to explore the world, why not explore the world of tea? There are so many different types of teas you can try. I don’t mean just black, green, puerh, oolongs or white teas (or even yellow, blue or red teas). Try a first or second flush Darjeeling from India, a high grown tea from Ceylon, silver tips from China or an oolong from Taiwan.
Try to avoid flavoured teas as they don’t allow you to taste the real essence of tea you are trying. Each tea has it’s own natural flavour profile. Next time you go for something new, close your eyes and inhale the smell of the dry leaf, and then the wet. Drink in the aroma of the steaming cup of choice before you taste it. What can you smell? Do you notice any stone fruits or a nutty roasted flavour? Is it sweet or savoury? Now taste it. Does it taste the same as it smells?
If you are feeling adventurous, try a tea type you have never tried. On a recent trip to Europe I discovered a white Darjeeling – the flavour was so delicate with hints of peach and the leaves were downy and soft. It was so refreshing and light but full-bodied at the same time if that could be possible. It was wonderful to try something new. Discover your own new favourites. Or if you’d prefer to stick to something similar to what you are used too, perhaps just go for another type of black tea. How about a Keemun, Assam, Nilgiri or Yunnan?
Having discovered several new teas on my travels, it was even more delightful to come home to my usual daily cup.
Hint: Next time when you are out and about I encourage you to try something different. Ask for a loose leaf, and go for something you wouldn’t normally have. It makes your favourite cup of tea at home all the more special.
Words and image contributed by Tea Master, Suzi van Middelkoop from Tea by the Sea.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the merits of doing the seemingly impossible: selling tea to China. After garnering quite a bit of interest, I’ve decided to extend that article (although, if you haven’t yet read the old one, you can take a look here). Today I’m going to link you to some news articles about entrepreneurs who are all selling their own tea to China.
It is no secret that China has market dominance when it comes to tea, followed closely by India and Japan. China produces so much tea, and in so many different varieties, that it caters for palettes the world over. In addition to that, it has generations of tea farmers who have passed down ancient and heavily-refined tea processing techniques to their children, thus giving their tea an edge that very few other countries could ever hope to match. With access to the wondrous, mountainous areas of the Himalaya, to ideal soils and large amounts of land from which to harvest, China truly understands the importance of its thriving tea export market.
So, the question is begged: Is it actually possible – under any circumstances – to sell tea to China?
This phrase tends to be thrown around when someone is seen as an exceptionally good salesperson. Compare and contrast “Selling ice to the Eskimos”, which I can guarantee is going to be harder still than selling tea to China. And yet, the question still hangs in the air.
This may surprise you to know, but one clever British woman is doing exactly that. And she is doing it by selling Chinese tea connoisseurs experiences that may only be seen outside of the Chinese market. It seems a little silly, really, that with China’s love affair with tea that very few are exporting more exotic teas into the country. In fact, it seems, selling tea to China is shockingly easy, with China on average spending even more on tea than we Westerners manage to spend on alcohol.
Let that statistic sink in for a moment. Think about the sort of drinking cultures we have here, especially in the UK and Australia: Binge drinking is common among youth, and people who choose not to drink at all are apparently “strange”, for some reason. Alcohol has pervaded our society with unimaginable breadth – and it definitely isn’t cheap. Despite this, despite the fact that you could probably die from over-consumption of tea if you spent (and proceeded to consume) the same amount as you would for scotch, China still makes more money per capita on tea than we do on alcohol.
Now we’re starting to see the bigger picture, but this doesn’t include incredibly rare and special teas, which can become very expensive indeed. However, these aren’t for the average consumer – these teas are in limited supply and do not make up a large market share. Many average Chinese consumers still crave for a taste of the exotic – even if less expensive varieties of exotic would be favoured.
I will leave this analysis with one final question, one that you may be asking yourself right now:
Why aren’t more people selling tea to China?
We move to our next lesson in understanding tea quality through the leaf in Part 2 of Colours and Shapes. Today, we are focusing particularly on the leaf’s shape, which depends greatly on the type of tea we are examining.
So, let’s say you’ve bought a royal ring tea. It’s a green tea that has been processed into its beautiful trademark ring-shaped coil, shown on the picture above. If this tea has not been made to optimum quality you will notice that these coils are not as tightly furled as they should be – at least in the dry leaf. This means they may not have been processed with the care and attention they deserve, and will not achieve the same wonderful flavours as a high-quality royal ring might.
Texture can also be important, and in any tea where the texture seems different to those of its type, this can indicate any number of things. Texture in particular can be difficult to discern, however it’s important to remember that no green or white tea should be brittle, although some black teas may take on this characteristic. Each different tea has its own set of traits that are considered “optimum” and “normal”, so it really does count to do some research and experience the tea from several different tea producers (if the tea is made by several independent farmers and/or companies).
Tea leaves are a delicate thing. To ensure optimum quality, they need to be plucked with specific care, the result being a quality leaf that may be fully appreciated. Experienced tea drinkers and masters can often tell you the quality of a leaf just by looking at it, and today we’re going to give you a few clues as to what to look for, so you can too.
Please note, of course, that it takes much time and tea drinking to uncover what the leaf conveys. Experience is paramount in order to separate the subtle differences, but don’t treat it too seriously. Enjoy tea as you always have, and don’t pressure yourself into being able to tell with every single leaf. Your experience will build simply by making the conscious decisions to take a look at your leaves before you simply throw them in your teapot.
One of the first indications of quality that you can look for is whether the leaves of a batch are of a similar size. If not – for example, in a whole leaf tea you can see leaves that are obviously broken and some tea dusts – this can indicate that the tea was processed by machine and thus will be inferior to a manually processed version. Not only that, but it will also mean that the tea will not steep at an exactly even rate. While this is hardly detrimental to a tea’s flavour, at the same time it certainly isn’t favourable.
There are three major systems of grading black tea and the grades refer to the size and state of the leaf.
The most common incorrectly used grade is OP. This refers to one of the grading categories of tea “orange pekoe”. Often people ask for an orange pekoe tea and they relate it to the flavour but in fact this has nothing to do with flavour, or oranges. It is only the grade of the leaf size.
There are many other grades such as “P” for pekoe and “F” for fannings, which is the size of the leaf commonly used for tea bags. Usually the more letters the better quality the tea.
There is a lot to learn about grading and this varies in different countries. The main thing to remember, which is more important than the grade, is to understand the flavours and aromas of tea as this is what counts the most.
You can have high grades of tea as far as leaf-size goes and yet they may have been poorly processed, so unless you taste the teas you will never know.
FTGFOP is a grade that has been jokingly referred to as “Far Too Good For Ordinary People”.