Have you ever wondered about the words “orange pekoe” printed on your box of tea? For a long time, I assumed they referred to the type or flavour of tea –perhaps you have too. In fact, the name “orange pekoe” indicates is the quality and category of tea leaves.
There is no standard scale for tea quality; several different scales are used depending on how the tea leaves are processed. The highest category is whole-leaf. The second category is broken-leaf tea. These leaves are torn into pieces that are large enough to be recognized as tea leaves. Next is fanning. Tea leaves in this category are cut into much smaller pieces than broken leaf tea. However, the coarse texture of the leaves is still distinguishable at tea. It is this class of tea that is used in tea bags. Dust is the final category. The name tells it all: the texture is fine and powdery. The powder is generally made from the leftover pieces of the other classes. (This category does not include tea made from whole leaves which are pulverized into a power, such as Matcha teas.)
Within each category of tea, letters are used to indicate the quality and type of tea. For example, whole leaf orange pekoe is OP while or Broken Orange Pekoe is BOP. There are eight to ten grades within each category. Sadly, your standard orange pekoe is the second lowest grade.
The grade of tea in part deals with its age. Newer leaves are higher in caffeine than older leaves, as the stimulant is primarily found on the bud. So orange pekoe tea has much less caffeine than the highest readings such as Flowery Pekoe or fine tippy golden flowery orange Pekoe (yes that is all one designation!). The two later grades are respectively the highest and second highest grade of tea.
Another factor related to the grade and category of tea is the steeping time required. Whole leaf teas require a much longer time to sit than the finer categories such as fanning or powder. A Final note, there is a new category of tea that is separate from the traditional ones. This is crushed-tear-curled tea, and it uses modern machinery to oxidize the leaves, rather than the pressing and bruising used in traditional tea. Because this is an entirely different process, it doesn’t use the use the traditional grading scales. Most commonly, CTC comes as dust; other types are far less common. These are considered lower grade teas. The only reason for using CTC rather than traditional methods is the faster and more efficient processing times.
The only question left is the origin of the “orange pekoe” designation. This isn’t entirely known, but likely “orange” referred to a trading company that first imported tea to Europe. “Pekoe” is speculated to come from a Chinese word describing the teas quality. So, I was wrong. The words “orange pekoe” has nothing to do with taste, nor sweet citrus fruit. It simply means you and I are drinking standard, mediocre quality tea.