In our second part of the Tea Masterclass, we talk about Classifications, Gradings and Countries of production. Enjoy your Tea Journey!
Tea is traditionally classified based on the degree or the period of ‘fermentation’ the leaves have undergone. There is a disagreement between China and the other countries that produce teas as to how each type of tea is described. I have tried to describe each of the classifications in turn, as well as highlight the differences.
White tea is wilted and unoxidised, it is very mellow, gentle and floral in flavour. The softest of flavours come from the youngest most delicate leaves. Leaves used for white tea can barely even be described as leaves at all. The are leaf buds and flower petals, rather than open, or mature leaves.
The leaves are only allowed to undergo the most minimal amount of oxidisation through a small amount of withering before the oxidisation is stopped by baking the leaves. The withering process can last from one to three days, but under optimal conditions lasts for only 26 hours.
The leaf buds that make up the tea might be kept out of the sunlight in order to ensure that chlorophyll does not form, thereby maintaining the white colour of the tea. The buds of the tea can have a silvery appearance, and therefore are sometimes referred to as Silver Tip.
In China, white tea is fully oxidised by letting the tea naturally dry out in the sun. The whiteness of this tea refers to the absence of man-made processing.
Green tea is unwilted, and unoxidised, it is made with the very first, youngest open leaves on each shoot of the tea bush.
By leaving the leaves unwilted, there is a very small amount of enzymatic oxidisation that occurs naturally within the leaves. This natural oxidisation is stopped (fixed) soon after picking, by the application of heat. There are two methods for doing this. The Japanese method uses steam, whereas the traditional Chinese method is to use dry cooking in hot pans.
The process of making a green tea takes one to two days from harvesting.
After heating, the tea leaves may be left to dry as separate leaves, or rolled into pellets to make Gunpowder tea. As this process has to be done by hand, and is therefore expensive and time consuming, so is normally reserved for pekoes of the highest quality.
Yellow tea is unwilted and unoxidised, but has been allowed to yellow.
As in the creation of a green tea, the lack of wilting allows a little bit of natural enzymatic oxidisation, and then the fixation process stops any further oxidisation. However, unlike with green teas, the yellow teas are not dried straight away. Instead, the leaves are stacked, and left in a humid environment. This allows the green chlorophyll in the leaves to oxidise in a way that is free from enzymatic action and microbial breakdown. This process leaves the leaves with a green-yellow or yellow colour, which lends itself to a tea that is itself a more light and yellow in colour.
Oolong (blue) Tea
Oolong tea is wilted, bruised, and partially oxidised.
These teas are allowed to oxidise, but the oxidisation process is stopped before it is completed. The amount of oxidation that is allowed to occur in the leaves varies and will affect the flavour and level of tannins in the tea. Semi-oxidised teas are collectively known as ‘blue’ teas in China, while the term ‘Oolong’ is used as a name for certain specific teas.
Taiwan is a major producer of Oolong teas, where they struggle to balance the level of oxidisation. It is claimed that too little oxidisation can cause upset stomachs in the customers, but conversely, customers prefer the taste of teas less fermented, and they like to buy teas that come in spherical and semi-spherical shapes, and the rolling process is easier with less fermentation.
Black tea is wilted, sometimes crushed, and fully oxidised.
Leaves for the black tea are a little older than the ones used for green or white teas. They can be the second or third leaf on each stem of the bush. Being a little more mature, the structures in the leaves are a more established, and therefore require more work to break them down before the flavours can be released.
Firstly, the leaves are withered to reduce the water content to about 68 to 77% of the original. The stronger structures of the leaves are then broken down through disruption and bruising as described above.
The oxidisation process breaks down much of the catechins in the tea leaves into tannins. The oxidisation for a black tea takes from between 45 minutes to 3 hours.
In Chinese tea descriptions, these teas are called ‘red’ teas.
Post-fermented (matured) Tea
Post-fermented teas are green teas that have been allowed to ferment/compost.
These teas are allowed to oxidise a second time after the first fixing. These include Pu-ehr, Liu’an and Liubo teas.
In Chinese tea descriptions, these are referred to as black teas.
Smoked teas are black teas, that are roasted over a pine wood fire as part of the drying process.
Flowering teas are made by wrapping dried tea leaves around one or more dried flowers. These are made by binding first, and then drying. When the bulb is steeped, the leaves unfurl imitating a flower blooming, with the flowers inside forming the centrepiece.
Tisanes (or herbal infusions) are not teas at all, as they are not made with tea, but are infused with hot water in the same way. They are often made with herbs, spices, or other plant material
The final stage in tea production is the most specialised, the fine art of blending.
Almost 90% of the tea that is drunk in the UK is blended tea. The idea of blending is to ensure that the flavour, quality and character of the tea is consistent each year, regardless of the quality and quantity of the harvest in any given region. Blends are big business, and each company’s blends are trade secrets, closely guarded. Some even passing down generation to generation. The blend has to be able to withstand all natural fluctuations in supply, but also has to take into account local variations such as local tastes, market conditions, and water hardness or softness.
For this reason, the job of a tea blender is as specialised and as highly regarded as that of a cellar master (Oenologist) in wine production or Master Brewer in whisky production. A tea taster would have to work for many years to rise to the position of tea blender. To put this into perspective, there is at least five years of training to become a tea taster.
Each taster is likely to taste up to 1000 teas, adjusting the recipe to ensure that the tea retains all the characteristics that the public will recognise as the tea that they choose to buy.
Grading is the process by which the leaves are evaluated on their quality and condition. The highest grades are called ‘orange pekoe’, the lowest called ‘fannings’ or ‘dust’.
Pekoe tea grades are classified into various qualities, based on how many adjacent leaves are picked with the leaf bud. Top quality pekoe grades are made up of only the leaf buds without any adjacent leaves (Flowery Orange Pekoe), with one leaf (Orange Pekoe) or two leaves (Pekoe).
Souchong are the fourth and fifth leaves of the tea plant. The leaves are coarser, and have fewer aromatic compounds. Smoking to form Lapsang Souchong makes a marketable product from lower quality leaves.
When crushed to make tea bags, the leaves break into uneven sized pieces. The largest pieces are called ‘broken’ leaves, and are categorised on their own scale of ‘broken orange pekoe’ leaves (BOP). The small pieces that were traditionally considered to be the rejects of the manufacturing process are called ‘fannings’, and the smallest particles of all are ‘dusts’. Both of these grades have their own grading systems. The fannings of expensive teas can be more expensive and more flavourful than whole leaves of cheaper teas.
These fannings and dusts have massively increased in popularity as they produce a very strong brew, so you are able to use less weight of tea for the same amount of cups. For poorer parts of the world, this has made tea more accessible, and more widely consumed.
A tea infuser is typically used to brew fannings due to the size of the particles. They are also typically used in all but the most expensive tea bags.
Orange Pekoe is referred to as OP. This is a basic grade, with higher grades determined by leaf wholeness and size.
Choppy – contains many leaves of various sizes.
Fannings – small particles of tea leaves used almost exclusively in tea bags.
Flowery – consists of large leaves, typically plucked in the second or third flush with an abundance of tips.
Golden Flowery – includes very young tips or buds (usually golden in colour) that were picked in the early season
Tippy – includes an abundance of tips.
Whole Leaf Grades
- OP1 – slightly delicate, long wiry leaf with the light liquor
- OPA – bold, long leaf tea which ranges from tightly wound to almost open
- OP – the main grade, between OP1 And OPA, can consist of long wiry leaf without tips.
- OP Superior – primarily from Indonesia, similar to OP
- Flowery OP – high quality tea with long leaf and few tips, considered to be the second grade in Assam, Dooars and Bangladesh teas, but the first grade in China.
- FOP1 – as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification
- Golden FOP1 – higher proportion of tip than FOP, top grade in Milima and Marinyn regions, uncommon in Assam and Darjeeling
- Tippy GFOP – highest proportion of tip, main grade in Darjeeling and Assam
- TGFOP1 – as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the TGFOP classification
- Finest TGFOP – highest quality grade (Note: ‘Special’ is occasionally substituted for ‘Finest’, with a number 1 at the end to indicate the very finest), often hand processed and produced at only the best plantations, roughly one quarter tips.
- Special FTGFOP(1) – sometimes used to indicate the very finest.
Broken Leaf Grades
- BT – Broken tea: Usually a black, open, fleshly leaf that is very bulky. Classification used in Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and some parts of Southern India.
- BP – Broken Pekoe: Most common broken pekoe grade. From Indonesia, Ceylon, Assam and Southern India
- BPS – Broken Pekoe Souchong: Term used for broken pekoe in Assam and Darjeeling
- FP – Flowery Pekoe: High quality pekoe. Usually coarser with fleshier, broken leaf. Produced in Ceylon and Southern India, as well as in some parts of Kenya
- BOP – Broken orange pekoe: Main broken grade. Prevalent in Assam, Ceylon, Southern India, Java and China.
- FBOP – Flowery broken orange pekoe: coarser and broken with some tips. From Assam, Ceylon, Indonesia, China and Bangladesh. In Southern America coarser, black broken
- FBOPF – Finest broken orange pekoe flowery: the finest broken orange pekoe. Higher proportion of tips. Mainly from Ceylon’s ‘low districts’.
- GBOP – Golden broken orange pekoe: second grade tea with uneven leaves and few tips.
- GFBOP1 – Golden flowery broken orange pekoe 1: As above, but with the only highest quality leaves in the GFBOP classification.
- TGFBOP1 – Tippy golden flowery broken golden pekoe 1: High quality leaves with a high proportion of tips. Finest broken First Grade Leaves in Darjeeling and some parts of Assam.
- PF – Pekoe fannings
- OF – Orange fannings: From Northern India and some parts of Africa and South America
- FOF – Flowery orange fannings: Common in Assam, Dooars, and Bangladesh. Some leaf sizes come close to the smaller broken grades.
- GFOF – Golden flowery orange fannings: Finest grade in Darjeeling for tea bag production
- TGFOF – Tippy golden flowery orange fannings
- BOPF – Broken orange pekoe fannings: Main grade in Ceylon, Indonesia, Southern India, Kenya, Mozambique, Bangladesh and China. Black leaf tea with few added ingredients, uniform particle size, and no tips.
- D1 – Dust 1: From Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Africa, South America and Southern India
- PD – Pekoe dust
- PD1 – Pekoe dust 1: Mainly produced in India.
Countries of Production
Although tea originated in China, it is was for a long time only the second largest tea producer in the world, losing out to India. Recently, it has regained the top spot, as India has run out of space in which to open new plantations.
Tea plantations are found throughout the central and southern provinces. As you might expect, the Chinese tea production was managed through a central government agency for each region, which was responsible for selling all of the region’s production. However, under the rule of Deng XiaoPing, the trade was de-centralised, and there has been a rapid expansion in private companies who are now selling their teas directly to the importers.
Because of the history of being sold by a centralised government agency, Chinese tea is not sold according to which plantation has produced the tea, as this would have not been know. Instead, the tea is sold by it’s “denomination” for each type of tea, which can help to identify different qualities.
Tea producing areas of China are moderately wet, with rainfall being more-or-less consistent throughout the year. Plantations are also situated on hillsides that have low cloud coverage. This gives the leaves a high water content, which is an important factor in the production of green teas in particular.
The main harvest (both in terms of quality and quantity) is from mid April to mid May.
India is currently the second largest tea producing country in the world, having recently lost the top stop to China. India produces many different types of tea, as there are a number of growing areas within the last country, that have very different climates, and therefore very different growing conditions. In addition, there are different tea plants that are used in some areas, and others will use more than one variety, and will hybridise the different plants for the specific properties that they want.
Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Darjeeling plantations are at high altitudes (from 400 to 2,500m above sea level) around the town of Darjeeling. This is in a small part of India sandwiched between Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. The first plantation was started by the British in 1856. There are now over 90 plantations in Darjeeling, and quality is now more due to the skill of the planter than the altitude.
Darjeeling is not drunk in India, but saved for export only due to its very high prices. It is either sold as a premium product, which is tracked and traced from the plantation to the consumer, or sold as part of a blended tea.
Due to the establishment of the plantations by different companies, each plantation produces a different quality tea. The quality is dependant on the time and method of plucking, the altitude and aspect of the plantation, the origin of the tea plants, and the quality of the soil.
The time during the year at which the tea is plucked can have a big influence on the quality and type of tea that it is suitable to brew, and in India, there are 5 different picking seasons (flushes) each year with different qualities and characteristics.
First flush: This is the spring flush, and is the first of the harvests throughout the year. It usually takes place between the end of February and the end of April. Throughout the winter, the tea plant has been resting, and the first shoots of the year contain a higher percentage of essential oils, giving a tea that is full of light aromatics. The first picking is high in these young shoots (or golden tips), and therefore is of a very high quality, and is sold as an extremely premium product. The weather and climate of the winter season has a very big impact on the quality of the teas that are produced during the first flush, and these climatic conditions can have a big impact on the success of a plantation’s production for that year. First flush teas do not age well, and should be drunk within the first nine to twelve months after picking.
In-between flush: This is a fairly rare harvest that is carried out between the first and second flushes (early May). Teas produced in this flush are a mixture of the freshness of the first flush teas, and the roundness of the summer ones.
Second flush: The second flush harvest is in the summer months before the monsoon season and occurs between May and June. As the leaves had had a bit more time to grow, they are more mature and developed, but are still small and have turned brown. The tea itself is more golden of colour, and full bodied that the first flush teas.
Monsoon flush: During the monsoon season (July to September), the sun is obscured by the monsoon rains, and as a result, the tea plants are not able to grow as well as during the spring or summer. As a result, the tea picked at this time is of a poorer quality than that of other times of the year. This tea is often not exported, or is used in the production of masala chai (a tea based beverage containing aromatic spices).
Third flush: Following the monsoon season, the sun returns, and with the additional water in the soil, a rapid growth occurs in the tea plants. The leaves grow, and are picked larger. They tend to have less floral and aromatic flavours, but have a fuller body, with delicate notes.
The province of Assam is to the East of Darjeeling, sandwiched between China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma). It is a low lying region of India, that is intersected by the Brahmaputra River, and its tributaries, and at the start of the 20th century it was covered in tropical rainforest. This fertile area produces more than half of the tea in India. Rainfall follows the same general pattern as that of the Darjeeling region, but is more heavy. In Assam, the first flush harvest is very rare, with the bulk of the harvest being in the in-between flush and second flush (April to October).
Assam teas are vigorous, spicy, tannic and astringent. The infusion produces a dark liquid, with powerful flavours, which are perfect for drinking with milk.
If these teas are not blended, then they have to be sold under the name of the plantation that produced them.
Nilgiri, Dooars, Kangra and Terai are the other major tea producing regions within India, and each of them produces teas of different characteristics depending on the climate and terrain of the region.
Tea was first introduced to Sri Lanka by the British in 1857. At the time, the island was totally covered in coffee plantations, and the tea plant did not take commercially. In 1869, a parasite completely destroyed the coffee plantations allowing the island to be covered with tea.
At that time, the island was called Ceylon, it’s name was changed in 1972. The use of the name Ceylon has stuck with tea produced in Sri Lanka, which is now the world’s third largest producer.
Sri Lanka produces tea in six major regions, all located in the south of the island, with altitudes ranging from sea level to about 2,500m.
Nuwara Eliya is an oval shaped plateau at an elevation of about 1902m. There is very little effect of the monsoon rains on this part of the island. Teas from Nuwara Eliya can be recognised by the bronze colour that the leaves take on once they are infused. The liquor is very clean and amber coloured, with a taste that is flowery and reminiscent of jasmine.
Dimbula has an elevation of between 1067 and 1524m, and is strongly affected by the monsoon rains from June to September, and colder weather from January to March. Dimbula is made up of 8 sub-districts. The teas produced here are more full bodied and astringent. They produce a light brown infusion and a dark liquor.
Kandy is famous for mid-growing teas, and plantations are at altitudes of 610 to 1219m. The teas produced here are full bodied and astringent.
Uda Pussellawa is situated between Nuwara Eliya and Uva Province, and the Northwest monsoons have a large effect on the tea production. Teas grown closer to Nuwara Eliya have a range of rosy teas.
Uva Province is a large district that has an elevation of 914 to 1524m. It is made up of a number of sub-districts. There is a season of dry winds in this district between June and September. It produces teas that are mellow and aromatic, with a round taste, but less full bodied than the rest of Sri Lanka’s teas. They are often used for blended teas.
Southern Province has elevations from sea level to 610m, with fertile soils and warm conditions. There are four main sub-districts. Southern province is renowned for its Orange Pekoes, with highly worked and very regular leaves. Their aroma is powerful and long lasting taste in the mouth.
Tea was first introduced to Kenya by the Caine brothers, with commercial production starting in 1924. Large scale producers account for about 40% of the country’s production, with the remaining 60% being made up of small scale holders, managed by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).
Tea produced in Kenya is generally sold as part of blended teas, especially used to make tea bags.
Like Sri Lanka and Ceylon, Taiwan retains its old name of Formosa when it comes to tea production. Tea production was minimal in Taiwan until the rise of the Communist party in 1949, when production exploded. The island is very fertile, and has very good growing conditions, with high altitude plantations, good humidity, and a constant temperature of between 12°C and 20°C.
Taiwan specialises mostly in the production of Oolong teas. In actual fact, they are specifically called ‘Wu Long’ (Black Dragon) teas, but the name of the tea has been corrupted to the more common name of Oolong. Oolong teas are classified according to their degree of fermentation, rather than the method of their production.
Taiwan also makes both green and black smoked teas, including the particularly potent Tarry Souchong.
Join us for the final part as we go into making the perfect cup of tea and tea habits around the world!