Tea is broken into various grades based on the production process. There are different systems for tea grading, but one particular system, using letters, is in fairly widespread use. Broadly, tea is classified as Orthodox or CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl). This grading system is typically only used for black tea, and even then, not for all black teas. Green tea, oolongs, white tea, and black teas produced in China and Taiwan tend not to use this system.
Most of the information of this grading system of tea pertains only to leaf size. Although whole-leaf teas are often presented as higher quality, more desirable, and are often more expensive, it is impossible to generalize. Some broken-leaf teas can be outstanding, just as whole-leaf teas can be mediocre.
The grade reflects the caffeine content of a tea to a large degree. Because leaf buds contain more caffeine than mature leaves, tippy teas like TGFBOP contain more caffeine than OP or FOP grades; similarly, Souchong grades, made out of larger, older leaves contain even less caffeine. Grade also affects brewing. Whole-leaf teas tend to need longer infusion times, whereas broken leaf teas require shorter steeping, and fannings and dust infuse the fastest. Whole-leaf teas are also best for multiple infusions, although most of the teas that are used for multiple infusions are not graded according to the system on this page.
The letter abbreviations can also be confusing, as the letter F can mean “Flowery”, “Fine”, or “Fannings”.
Grades of Orthodox tea:
Whole leaf tea refers to tea that has not been broken or torn during production. The size and shape of the leaf varies widely, both as a function both of the types of leaves used, and how it is processed.
- FP – Flowery Pekoe
- FTGFOP – Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- TGFOP1 – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Grade One
- GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
- OP – Orange Pekoe
- OPA – Orange Pekoe A, A long-leaf tea with large, thick leaves, that can be either tightly-wound or more open.
- P – Pekoe
- S – Souchong
Broken-leaf tea is tea that has been torn or broken, but is still in large enough pieces to be recognizable as pieces of leaf.
- BOP1 – Broken Orange Pekoe One
- GFBOP – Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
- TGFBOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
- TGFBOP1 – Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Grade One
- BS – Broken Souchong
- BPS – Broken Pekoe Souchong
- GBOP – Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
- FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
- BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe
Fannings are finely-broken pieces of tea leaf that still have a recognizable coarse texture; they are the grade of tea used in most tea bags.
- GOF – Golden Orange Fannings
- FOF – Flowery Orange Fannings
- BOPF – Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
- FBOPF – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
Dust is a fine powder, much finer than fannings, made of tea particles left over from producing higher grades of tea. Tea made by pulverizing larger pieces of leaf or the tea plant, such as Matcha, is not classified as dust.
- OPD – Orange Pekoe Dust
- BOPD – Broken Orange Pekoe Dust
- BOPFD – Broken Orange Pekoe Fine Dust
- FD – Fine Dust
- D-A – Dust A
- Spl. D – Special Dust
- GD – Golden Dust
- OD – Orthodox Dust
Rarely, grades can be mixed, and labelled as such with the letter M. For example, BOPSM could be used to represent a broken-leaf mix of Orange Pekoe (BOP) and Souchong(S).
Grades of CTC tea:
CTC (crush-tear-curl) tea is tea that has been produced by a modern, mechanical process that tears the leaf in order to induce oxidation, rather than manually rolling it to bruise the leaf, as in the production of orthodox tea. Because the CTC process breaks the leaf, there is no whole-leaf CTC tea, and thus CTC tea is divided into broken-leaf, fannings, and dust. CTC is widely regarded as inferior, and the primary benefit is its lower cost of production, due to automation, although like other teas, CTC tea still varies widely in quality.
It is less common for tea drinkers to see CTC tea graded in tea for sale in stores or online. CTC tea grades include, for broken leaf tea, BP, BOP, BPS, BP1, and FP, and for fannings, OF, PF, and BOPF. There are a myriad of grades for CTC dust.