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Orange Pekoe – What Exactly Does It Mean?

Recently I was involved in an online conversation, over the age old use of lettering to offer an identifiable classification system for black tea and what those letters actually relate to. But this got me thinking about how many people probably don’t know the difference between a BOP and a SFTGFOP.

So in this blog I’m going to attempt to unravel the background to this system; how it works, and what those letters mean in their simplest form.

The classification of tea came about in the 1600’s, and possibly towards the mid 1600’s, when the Dutch East India Company was at its most powerful. This company was at its finest around the 1670’s, commanding a very large fleet of trading ships, and a large fleet of warships, with over thirty thousand military personnel and approximately fifty thousand civilian personnel, a sizeable company even compared with today’s standards. Their influence over global trade was substantial and allowed them to instigate standards on certain trades, the trade in tea being one such trade.

The use of the word Orange in Orange Pekoe was adopted by the industry from the Dutch Royal Family. The Royal family, being a part of the European Protestant family of Orange, allowed the use of their name to describe a large quality black leafed tea. Using the name offered marketing possibilities to Holland’s tea traders, by giving it a certain royal touch as the most superior teas of the time, were reserved for members of the royal household, and not for regular sale. When households around Europe were able to offer their guests an orange pekoe tea, it gave the suggestion that the tea somehow had the royal seal or warrant. Great one up-man-ship!

Pekoe is generally referred to – or is described in its translation – as ‘leaf’, but Pekoe actually refers to the casing which protects each new bud. When the plant has supplied the new bud with enough growth and moisture the pekoe will split open, similar to a butterfly’s chrysalis. The new bud, bursting with growth and energy, sheds the pekoe, which falls away.

So, (not meaning to upset too many novel readers), where the author of many a book, has used a description something like, “Emily sipped on her orange pekoe, enjoying the subtle orange flavours of her favourite tea”. Wrong! Orange pekoe refers to a large leafed black tea which has been produced from the, three new leaves at the end of each stem, at the top of the bush. The orange pekoe leaf may vary slightly in size but will uniformly be a large black leaf.

Orange pekoe has over the years become synonymous with Ceylon teas. This came about after a visit by Sir Thomas Lipton, in 1890 to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and his purchase of 3,000 acres of tea gardens. Back in England, the Lipton Company had 400 stores at this time, and was selling through them over 6 million lbs of tea per year. The British public read of Lipton’s purchase and with the marketing behind it, the public believed he had purchased the whole island of Ceylon. Orange pekoe was to become the tea that everyone wanted – a touch of class and available at Lipton’s, it became I suppose what we would call today a marketing buzz word!

You should also know that an orange pekoe and its derivatives can be produced by any orthodox black tea manufacturer, in any country, anywhere in the world. It is not solely used to describe Ceylon teas as many would have us believe.

To produce an orange pekoe leaf from the orthodox method of tea production – the leaf is passed through slightly angled sieves and shaken. This movement encourages the smaller tea particles to pass through the sieve, leaving the larger orange pekoe leaf behind. The smaller tea particles will carry on through other sieves to become BOP- broken orange pekoe, or even smaller fanning’s or dust. The smaller BOP leaves will be used mainly in the blending of breakfast or other blended teas. The fanning’s and dust will carry on their journey to be used in teabag production, offering the teabag user a quick brewing leaf, which isn’t going to expand and burst the teabag.

If the leaves are picked before the new bud has opened in to a fully formed leaf, the tip will be incorporated with the two other leaves to produce, what is known as a ‘tippy tea’. These tips, when processed with the other leaves instead of changing colour to a black leaf, will turn a golden yellow or amber colour. The greater quantity of tips in the tea allows the producer to grade the leaf higher. The following list presents the main classifications used;

  • Dust – very small tea particles

  • Fanning’s – small tea particles

  • BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe, tea particles smaller than OP

  • OP – Orange Pekoe, large black leaves without tips

  • FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe, large black leaves with minimal tips

  • GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, large black leaves with a greater number of tips than FOP

  • FTGFOP – Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, large black leaves with a greater amount of tips than GFOP

  • SFTGFOP – Superior Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, the top classification with the highest amount of tips

This list is regularly exaggerated by producers, brokers etc. For instance, a 1 or 2 may be added at the end, symbolising that the classification is graded first and second class, eg GFOP-1. I believe this numbering of the grades should be dropped by the retailers, as it just adds further confusion for the customer. Also, some teas may be produced solely to create fanning’s and dust, as demand for teabag style tea is greater than the amount that is produced from the OP standards of leaf. These teas may use leaves that are further along the stem, but OP level of teas should be traditionally produced from the top three leaves, or top two and the tip.

Because of the production method of orthodox tea it’s easy to realise that you will produce other classifications of BOP. So if you’re producing a GFOP, consequently the small particles will become GFBOP- a small leaf with some tips in it and so on. You even get different grading’s of dust!

I hope this blog has been of some assistance to your understanding of this complex classification system for black teas, and that it’s not a description of the flavours Emily is going to enjoy from her brew!

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