What’s in an acronym? The esoteric side of tea grading.

Posted on March 19 2021


I have, thankfully rarely, customers who are incensed to find out that Orange Pekoe tea, does not have a citrus note. Most of our customers just ignore the jumble of letters that often follow their favourite teas. And perhaps they should. Because even though it may be useful to know that when asking for Orange Pekoe, or OP tea, you will probably end up with an ordinary China black tea, knowing the difference between a Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe and a Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe is probably too much info for most of us.

Unless you are a tea producer, a tea broker or a tea nerd, a perfunctory knowledge of leaf sizes and getting fresh, good quality tea from a reputable purveyor, is all most people ever need know. But, you’re reading this, so chances are better than average that your interest in tea goes beyond the casual.
The first thing of note, when looking at tea leaf grading systems is that not every tea producing country uses the same system. China, Taiwan and Japan usually grade their teas by naming or numbering them. 1 means the highest quality and larger numbers would be used for lower quality teas. Extra choicest, choicest, choice, finest, fine etc., are words used in descending order of quality.
Countries that developed a tea industry as a result of British colonization, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya, use a much different way of grading teas. And, since the Brits were mostly only interested in black teas, this grading system only applies to them. And, like all intense relationships, it’s complicated. Part of the acronym describes which leaves were harvested. OP stands for Orange Pekoe which is the first open leaf, moving downward from the not completely unfurled tip leaf. The second, and larger leaf moving downwards is just Pekoe, the third is Pekoe Souchong, the 4th Souchong and the 5th is Congou. The very tip, unopened leaf is the Flowery Orange Pekoe. So when one buys a black tea with the FOP acronym at the end of its name, one can expect a whole-leaf tea with tips in it. A congou tea, or a souchong tea, will have been produced from older, bigger leaves.

Part of the acronym in the British system refers to the size of the leaves. If the leaves are not whole, you may see the BOP acronym, for Broken Orange Pekoe, or FBOP for Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe. Even smaller particles of tea, usually left over after sorting and typically used in teabags, can be F, for fannings, or D for Dust. And there is the CTC designation. This one is assigned to tea processed in a very particular way, by machine, to produce a tea that is robust and quick brewing. CTC stands for Crush, Tear and Curl, the steps that result in the small, pellet-like teas. Teas that are not produced using this machine processing technique are often referred to as “Orthodox”.

Higher grades of orthodox teas, those that are rare, particularly carefully harvested and processed, or, those with significant quantities of tips, can garner additional acronym letters. FTGFOP, STGFOP, SFTGFOP and SFTGFOP1 are reserved for these exceptional, whole leaf black teas.

At this point, I feel it’s important to say that none of this really matters if you like the tea. Or if you don’t like the tea. A high designation doesn’t always guarantee an exceptional tea, nor does a low one mean it’s a bad tea. And a bunch of acronyms won’t mean, pardon the pun, that this is “your cup of tea”. It is a good guide for determining how the tea will look, what type of tea it might be, but no more than that. We love our CTC British Cuppa. There’s nothing like it when we need that morning, malty brew with milk. The FOP Monsoon Darjeeling offers floral notes and complexity that won’t hold up to milk and we love to sip it on a bright afternoon. Drink what you like. And, on that note, I’d like to leave you with a list of most of the different British system acronyms and their meanings. Do with them what you will.

SFTGFOP: Special Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
STGFOP: Special Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FTGFOP: Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP: Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
GFOP: Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FOP: Flowery Orange Pekoe
OP: Orange Pekoe
TGFBOP: Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
GFBOP: Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
FBOP: Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
BOP: Broken Orange Pekoe
BPS: Broken Pekoe Souchong
BP: Broken Pekoe
BOPF: Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
BPF: Broken Pekoe Fannings
PF: Pekoe Fannings
PD: Pekoe Dust
D: Dust

Wishing you comfort and tea
Maria Sparsis
Chesser Roe Product Development


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