Sunday, December 27, 2009

Does your tea make the grade?

Tea grading remains one of the most confusing of all tea discussions. This stands to reason as the tea grades are not standardized worldwide and tend to vary according to origin. The grading terms below are usually applied to black teas from India, Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, and Africa.

Black teas are typically graded according to leaf or particle size of leaf. Harvesting and manufacturing techniques greatly impact the finished size of the leaf, thus the tea grade. There are two main methods of producing black tea. The traditional Orthodox method requires hand-plucking of the buds and the two top leaves. The leaves are then rolled before size and grade of leaf is determined. (beginning of fermentation/oxidation stage) . The Orthodox method yields all of the possible leaf sizes and grades.

The CTC (crush, tear, curl) method of producing black tea has been gaining in popularity because of its convenience. CTC processed teas are either hand-plucked or may be machine harvested. When machine harvested, the CTC process gathers the traditional top two leaves and bud as well as other leaves on the tea bush. The leaves are then processed through the Cut, Tear, Curl machine which renders the leafs in particles cut to a common size. CTC processed teas have a appearance much like that of ground coffee.

Remember sifting sand as a child? The rocks or biggest particles always stayed on the top tray, while only the finest sand sifted all the way to the pail. Tea is processed with a similar technique. A whole leaf that does not pass through a designated sieve size during the sifting process is referred to as Orange Pekoe (OP) (pronounced 'Peck-o', rhymes with gecko). Orange Pekoe has nothing to do with oranges or orange flavor. The reference of Orange likely is a reference to the Dutch House of Orange, who, in founding the Dutch East India Company, played a major role in the spread of tea drinking habits throughout Europe and later the world. These leaves are usually of uniform size and rolled lengthwise. OP teas are categorized into finer definitions.

Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) is the top grade. During harvesting the bud and the top two leaves are hand-plucked. When harvested during slow growth periods, these young buds have a golden tip, hence the grade ``Flowery". Flowery does NOT indicate the teas flavor. When these tips are in found in abundance, the terms ``Tippy and Golden" are also attached. Number ``1'' or ``2'' may be placed at the end of the letters to designate better grades among similar teas. Similarly the letter 'F' may appear before the TGFOP to indicate a ``finer'' grade, while the letters ``SF" indicates a ``super fine'' grade. A tea graded as ``SFTGFOP1'' is a Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe - grade 1. Fabulous ... It's not unusual for higher grades of tea to command higher prices.

The next grade below Orange Pekoe is called Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) which designates a broken leaf that is smaller than those designated as OP. Just as with the OP grades, letters and numbers may be added to further define the grade -- Tippy, golden, and flowery, or a combination of these terms may also be applied. Thus a grade of ``TGBOP'' is a Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe tea. The letter 'I' for Imperial may also appear after BOP and designates a size which is smaller than whole leaf (OP) grade but larger than most of the BOP grades.

The tea grade which is even smaller than BOP is the PF, for Pekoe Fanning if produced by the CTC method of manufacturing, and Fanning if produced by the Orthodox method. This is a broken leaf about the size of a pin head. This grade of tea is often found in tea bags.

The lowest grade of tea available is the PD, Pekoe Dust if produced by CTC method of manufacturing, and Dust if produced by the Orthodox Method. This size is the smallest broken pieces left after siftings. These pieces are sometimes called the ``sweepings'', and it doesn't take much imagination to determine why. Some tea bags will contain fannings, or a combination of fannings and dust. Most tea bags in the United States contain only dust.

But your box of tea says ``fine quality Pekoe tea''? Could be true, but it likely means Pekoe Dust. Be wary of terms like ``fine'' and ``natural''. ``Fine'' is likely an opinion, and there is nothing in this world that is not ``natural'' (that is to say, derived from nature.). And to say a tea is ``mountain estate grown'' ... well, most teas are estate grown. And many estates are on mountains. That isn't anything special as tea goes ... that just where it like to grow best!

Fannings and dust have their place in this world. Fannings and dust are popularly used in tea bags because they steep so much faster than full leaf teas. Loose leaf teas, do though, have other advantages:
1) Loose leaf teas come in a far larger variety.
2) Tea bags may have environmental implications. Regular tea bags take about seven years to break down in the environment under perfect conditions for biodegradation. Pyramid tea bags, if not made from polylactic acid (a corn product), may last in the environment for over 120 years.
3) Studies have shown greater health benefits exist in loose leaf teas than tea bags.
4) You can control the strength of your own brew when using loose leaf teas.
5) Far better flavor

As SensibiliTeas, we do not carry dust. We do have a few teas that are the result of the CTC process, and are granular in nature, but they have been brought in by popular demand. Our standard at SensibiliTeas is to bring in as many hand-plucked, hand-processed first grade teas as possible and we are leaning toward a majority of teas produced through organic, fair-trade and/or bio-dynamic means.

We have also huge variety of caffeine-free herbal tisanes, and would be happy to teach you how to decaffeinate any of our other teas.

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