Earl Grey Tea Grading Explained


No, my cat didn’t just sit on the keyboard! 

They’re all different tea leaf grades.

But what do those letters mean? And will the tea grade affect your cup of Earl Grey?

Let’s delve into the world of tea grading.

Earl Grey teabag and loose leaf tea grading

Table of Contents

What is Tea Grading?

Tea leaf grading determines the quality and condition of a particular tea. 

This is based on three main characteristics:

  • Leaf Size
  • Leaf Type
  • Tip Ratio

Although, other factors may also be considered. For example, the season, the age, and the preparation of the tea leaves and tips.

In Asia and the West, the highest quality grade is ‘Orange Pekoe’. And the lowest grades are ‘Fannings’ and ‘Dust’.

Typically, traders and wholesalers grade tea to calculate how much they should pay for a batch of tea leaves. 

But the tea grade can also be useful for enthusiastic tea drinkers.

What is Orange Pekoe?

One of the most common grades you’ll come across is Orange Pekoe. 

Orange Pekoe is a classification of black tea. And it’s the same classification you’ll find on a box of Tetley Earl Grey tea.

Orange Pekoe (OP)

To be Orange Pekoe, the tea must consist of picked leaf buds that have the two youngest leaves intact.

Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP)

Broken Pekoe (often found in bagged tea) is a lower grade of tea. The leaf-crushing process creates smaller leaves, perfect for tea bags. But because it’s broken, dust is common. 

Etymology of Orange Pekoe

Pekoe (pronounced pek-ho) is the highest grade of tea. 

The word ‘Pekoe’ comes from the Southern Min Chinese phrase for white hair (白毫 – pe̍h-ho). A term that refers to young tea leaf shoots covered in fine white downs.

It’s unknown where the ‘Orange’ part came from. But it’s thought to have originated in the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau. 

The story goes that in the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company brought tea over to Europe. And that’s where the orange association came from. And basically, it just stuck. 

How is Tea Graded?

The most commonly used tea grading system is the same one found in both India and Sri Lanka. 

But other types of tea grading exist around the world.

With Indian teas, there are abbreviations for every kind of leaf. And each has its significance and meaning.

Tea Grading Terminology

  • Pekoe means that the leaves are whole
  • Flowery is used to describe leaves with buds
  • Tippy refers to leaves that are tip-heavy
  • Golden includes young tips or buds which are golden-coloured
  • Fine is a superior quality tea

‘Whole Leaf’ Orthodox Tea Grading System

Tea that’s processed using the Indian Orthodox method contains larger leaves that haven’t been broken or torn during production.

Because of this, they’re considered to be of higher quality than CTC leaves.

Indian Orthodox Tea Grades

(from largest to smallest)
  • [SFTGFOP] Special Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • [FTGFOP] Fine(st) Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • [TGFOP] Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • [GFOP] Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • [TGBOP] Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
  • [FBOP] Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • [BOP] Broken Orange Pekoe
  • [FOF] Flowery Orange Fannings
  • [GOF] Golden Orange Fannings
  • [D] Dust

‘Broken’ CTC Tea Grading Systems

CTC stands for Cut-Tear-Curl

This processing method macerates the leaves using a series of cylindrical rollers.

The “teeth” of the rollers crush, tear, and then curl the leaves. 

This results in smaller leaves, a stronger brew, and a quicker infusion time than orthodox graded tea.

And that’s why Cut-Tear-Curl leaves are often found in teabags.

Indian CTC Grading System

  • [BOP] Broken Orange Pekoe
  • [BOP SM] Broken Orange Pekoe – Small
  • [BP] Broken Pekoe
  • [BP SM] Broken Pekoe – Small
  • [PF] Pekoe Fannings
  • [PD] Pekoe Dust
  • [D] Dust
  • [FD] Fine Dust
  • [CD] Charamani Dust
  • [RD] Red Dust

African and Sri Lankan Tea Grading Systems

The “classic” tea grading system differs in Africa and Sri Lanka. 

They’re both much simpler. And contain fewer types of tea grades. 

Sri Lankan Tea Grades

  • [OPA] Orange Pekoe A
  • [OP] Orange Pekoe
  • [PEK] Pekoe
  • [BOPF] Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
  • [D] Dust

African Tea Grades

  • [BP1] Broken Pekoe 1
  • [PF1] Pekoe Fannings 1
  • [PD] Pekoe Dust
  • [D1] Dust 1

On the surface, this style of tea grading is easier to understand. But there are some downsides to such a simplified system.

By only focusing on the appearance of the leaf, it’s difficult to discern the true quality of the tea by grade alone.

And key information such as the body, aroma, and texture of the tea is missing.

Chinese Tea Grading System

In China, there is no single universal grading system. 

But typically, the grades are numbered from one to nine. 

One being the highest grade and nine being the lowest.

Korean Tea Grading System

The tea grading system in Korea also uses a numbering system. 

But it’s a little more complex as the leaves are graded by first to fourth pluck (flush).

The first pluck is best and the fourth pluck is considered worse quality.

Korean Tea Grades

  • Ujeon | First Pluck | Bud Only
  • Sejak | Second Pluck | Bud & Leaf
  • Joongjak | Third Pluck | Young Leaves
  • Daejak | Fourth Pluck | Mature Leaves

Japanese Tea Grading System

In Japan, the lowest grade of Japanese tea is Kukicha.

Just above that is Bancha, then Sencha

Finally, Gyokuro is of the highest quality. The same grade of tea in Matcha.

Why is Tea Graded?

Tea is primarily graded to judge the quality of a particular type of leaf.

Not only can the grade affect the taste of the tea. But it can impact how you need to make it.

For instance, fanning and dust require a significantly shorter infusion time than whole leaves.

The grading will also impact the amount of caffeine in your Earl Grey tea

Why’s that? Well, younger leaf buds, generally, contain more caffeine than mature tea leaves.

Does the Tea Grade Matter?

Now you’re probably wondering how this all affects your cup of Earl Grey tea. 

Quite frankly – it doesn’t! 

A lot of it comes down to personal taste. 

If you prefer a bold, hearty black tea base, a ‘Broken Orange Pekoe’ or ‘Golden Orange Fannings’ is a good option.

If you’re big into your handcrafted, speciality Earl Grey blends. Keep an eye out for the subtler ‘Special Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe’.

Simple, right?