Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Teaology 101: OMG WTF is FTGFOP?!

Okay, I've been dreading this article for the longest time! I needed time to select the right words in order to provide a proper explanation. This is about orange pekoe. Let’s get the easier stuff out of the way first: pronunciation. Pekoe is pronounced “peck-oh” as in “birds peck”, not “peek-oh” as in “take a peek”. Supposedly the term comes from a translation of a Chinese dialect which means “white down” or “white hair”. It refers to the fine white hairs that cover the buds and some of the newer leaves.

Orange has nothing to do with the fruit. There is no orange flavouring in orange pekoe. Though it is not certain where the “orange” part of the term originated, the following explanations are generally accepted, with the first one being the most popular:

  • The Dutch East India Company was one of the most prosperous companies that helped bring tea to Europe. Only the finest teas were reserved for the Dutch Royal Family, the House of Orange.
  • Oxidized leaves produce a coppery colour prior to the drying stage. Also, an orange colour is the result of fully oxidized finished pekoe leaves.
Hence, orange pekoe, fine tea fit for royalty!

Orange pekoe is not a type of tea. It is actually a grading system that applies to black (red) teas mainly from India, Sri Lanka, and some African nations. It can get pretty complicated! I’m going to keep things as simple as possible. The higher grades are referred to as orange pekoe and are composed of the first flushes. The season will also play a part in leaf evaluation. A flush is a bud and the two youngest leaves. The new smaller, younger leaves are more valuable than the larger, older leaves. Below is a diagram of the Camellia sinensis plant with the terms of some of the leaves.

When the plucked flushes go through the manufacturing process, the finished, dried leaves are sorted and graded according to size and condition by sifting through various sizes of mesh trays. The larger leaves will sit at the top, and the smaller particles will drop through to the bottom trays.

Finer particles will steep quicker, and are mainly used for tea bags. There are some teas that produce a great cup using these smaller particles, so don't dismiss them. As well, some companies will actually purchase these fannings from tea manufacturers for use in their own products. The soda companies are perfect examples. Broken tea leaves and whole tea leaves will unfurl over time during their infusions which will have a greater impact on taste.

Classifying the leaves by the grading system consists of using letters and even the occasional number. Orange Pekoe (OP) is the standard grade. A broken leaf is Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP). Leaves can be distinguished further with additional characteristics such as Golden Broken Orange Pekoe (GBOP). Further below are fannings or dust such as Pekoe Fannings (PF). Then there are grades above OP such as Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP), or Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe grade 1 (SFTGFOP1). See the confusion now? What's even worse is that there is no standardized system. Grading can vary from country to country as well as manufacturer to manufacturer. You'll find extensive complicated lists through Google.

The simple chart I created above shows some of the grade terminologies. They are just a few of many more acronyms! The point I really wanted to get across in this post is to explain that orange pekoe is not a genre of tea, but a grading system for tea. Hopefully I've achieved that.

BTW, FTGFOP stands for Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe or as some tea jokesters like to call it, Far Too Good For Ordinary People! ROTFLMFAO!

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