Monday, November 14, 2016

SFTGFOP? What the Letters On Your Tea Packaging Mean

One of the things that mystified me when I first started drinking tea was the letter grade system used in Darjeeling (and other British colonial tea regions). Understanding a few simple terms helps to clear things up quite a bit. These abbreviations denote the grade of leaves used to make the tea. Orange Pekoe is usually used to describe a black tea consisting of whole leaves of a particular size. 

Contrary to popular belief, Orange Pekoe is not a flavor or type of tea. Pekoe is a corruption of the Chinese term Bai Hao (meaning white tip). I've read that the name Orange comes from the Dutch House of Orange. This makes sense since they were trading tea even before the British had started drinking it. It was meant to imply that the tea was good enough to meet with royal approval. Incidentally, the world tea comes from tĂȘ in the Amoy dialect of Southern Fujian because that is where the Dutch got their tea from. We might be calling it cha if they had traded in Canton like the Portuguese instead!

Fannings and dust are the lowest grades and they are used to produce tea bags. While not an ideal cup of tea, they provide a larger surface area which allows the water to pull color and flavor out of the leaf more quickly.

Now, here is where it gets complicated. This grade has nothing to do with the actual quality of the tea. In general, more letters equates to a better tea but this isn't always the case. You can have a badly made SFTGOP and a very well done OP.

FTGFOP1 from Rohini Estate

Numbers are sometimes added to the end of abbreviations. This is simply included for emphasis when a garden feels it was a particularly good lot. Teas that are marked with EX are harvested prior to the official 1st flush. The leaves used to tend to be a bit more yellowish in color but they are not necessarily of lower quality. You may also see information about what cultivated variety was used to produce the tea. The most common of these is AV2. Also referred to as clonal, these teas are often developed for specific traits that could help increase production. Planters choose them because they might be more drought hardy or because the are resistant to particular pests.

For a bit of nerdy tea humor, FTGFOP really stands for Far Too Good for Other People. ;)

Here some examples of common grades that you might run into:

SFTGFOP - Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FTGFOP - Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP - Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FTGBOP - Fine Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
TGBOP - Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
FBOP - Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
BOP - Broken Orange Pekoe
GFOF - Golden Flowery Orange Fannings
GOF - Golden Orange Fannings
D - Dust

This post originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Tea for Me Please Quarterly. Sign up using the form below to receive informative tea articles four times a year.