A beginners guide to tea grading - Chanui

A beginners guide to tea grading

What is tea grading and why is it important?


Tea grading is essentially just categorising tea leaves by quality after they have been picked and processed. 

Just as olive oil ranges from first press extra virgin right down to pomace olive oil, tea has a similar ranking system that helps growers, traders and consumers make informed decisions quickly.

This post aims to condense down a fairly big topic into a usable guide for anyone who enjoys tea that is a little bit more than your average bag-in-a-cup drinker.
While the olive oil classification system is based on purity, acidity levels, and flavour profiles, tea is based on many things between the shape of the leaf to the flavour they produce. 

Leaf appearance: size and shape


Once tea has been picked, processed and dried, the leaves are graded based on their size and shape.


This can vary wildly depending on the type of tea and processing techniques but generally speaking, larger and more intact leaves are considered of higher quality while smaller, broken leaves are less desirable.


In orthodox tea grading, whole leaves or larger broken leaves are assigned higher grades, such as "orange pekoe" or "flowery pekoe," while smaller broken leaves are categorised as "broken orange pekoe" or "pekoe dust”, depending on the size of the percolates. 

Tea leaves pre-processing

Colour and brightness


Certain colour cues can indicate quality and dried leaves are assessed for uniformity and brightness. For example, when grading black tea, it is the presence of golden or silver tips that indicate quality. 


That’s why you’ll find the word "gold" in the names of brand’s premium offerings like Yorkshire Gold, Typhoo Gold, M&S Luxury Gold etc.  


Somewhat more obviously, green teas are evaluated for their vibrant green colour.




Aroma plays a significant role in our ability to experience taste and so greatly influences the grading of tea.


Think of when you walk into a house where a stew is bubbling away on the stove and you’re hit with a wave of smells. Those are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) interacting with your olfactory nerves.


The naturally occurring, aroma giving VOCs are excellent indicators of what it is likely to taste like once brewed. 


These aromas can range from floral and fruity notes to earthy or malty scents, depending on the tea type. A pleasing and pronounced aroma often indicates higher quality and freshness.


You can have the prettiest tea leaves going but if it doesn’t smell nice, it's getting bumped down a few notches.


Fun fact: There are such people as super-smellers who are paid handsomely by manufacturers of perfume, food and drink. 


Colour and clarity


Tea leaves are also evaluated on the colour and clarity of the infusion they produce once brewed.


The brewed tea’s appearance can indicate the quality and freshness with black teas assessed for a bright, clear, and reddish-brown infusion, while green teas are expected to yield a vibrant green or pale yellow liquor. 


We’ll include a video further down which shows this at play.

Flavour: taste and strength


Finally, it’s time for the final key element in tea grading - taste. 


It almost goes without saying but flavour determines the taste profile and overall enjoyment of the brew.


Tea tasters assess the leaves' taste and strength, considering factors like sweetness, bitterness, astringency, and complexity. 


Premium grades are often characterised by a well-balanced, nuanced flavour profile with desirable characteristics unique to the tea type.

Classification systems: understanding the various tea grading scales


Once the tea has gone through the above grading process, it will be assigned a classification which takes into account the interplay of all of the above factors. 


Broadly teas are divided into the following grades according to the size of the leaf but there are many sub-grades under each. For a more specific breakdown, it’s worth looking at this wikipedia article


Orange pekoe


Honestly this term is a little bit difficult to pin down but generally speaking, it is used to describe medium-grade black tea consisting of whole leaves. 


According to Wikipedia


The origin of the word "pekoe" is uncertain. One explanation is that it is derived from the transliterated mispronunciation of the Amoy (Xiamen) dialect word for a Chinese tea known as "white down/hair”. This is how "pekoe" is listed by Rev. Robert Morrison (1782–1834) in his Chinese dictionary (1819) as one of the seven sorts of black tea "commonly known by Europeans". This refers to the down-like white "hairs" on the leaf and also to the youngest leaf buds. Another hypothesis is that the term derives from the Chinese báihuā "white flower" (Chinese: 白花; pinyin: báihuā; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: pe̍h-hoe), and refers to the bud content of pekoe tea. 


Before you jump to the earl grey conclusion, the orange in the term has nothing to do with the orange fruit.


The term is believed to be related to the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau and was historically used as a short-hand for quality by association with the aristocratic house and the Dutch East-India Company.  


It could also be in reference to the orange colour of high-quality oxidised tea leaves.


Etymology aside, orange pekoe quite simply means “whole leaf” in the context of tea grading.


There are also grades within the pekoe category based on different levels of quality, determined by the number of young leaves (two, one, or none) that come with the leaf buds during picking. 


The highest-quality pekoe grades comprise only of the delicate leaf buds that are carefully plucked using only the fleshy part of the picker’s fingertips - not their nails. Fingernails and mechanical tools can cause bruising and so are avoided when dealing with the highest grade of tea.

Nowadays, ‘quality’ is far too complicated to boil down to the size of the tea leaf and consists of a combination of the above variables. 


Broken leaf grades


The clue is in the title but this grade refers to tea leaves which are no longer whole. It doesn’t necessarily mean worse tasting than orange pekoe but they are generally considered to be of slightly lower quality. 


The smaller particles means more surface area, allowing for more VOCs to be released from the tea when brewing which can result in a more robust flavour. 


These teas are commonly used in blends, including breakfast tea as the smaller size makes for a more consistent final product. 


Fanning grades


This is what the vast majority of tea drinkers will know and love. It is what is packed in your tea bags. You will find fanning grade tea the majority of Chanui products with the exception of our special reserve which uses tea from a process called crush, tear, curl (CTC). CTC has an entirely separate grading system which is equally as daunting! 


If you’ve ever split a teabag and seen small, powdery particles in the bottom of your cup, this is what you’re looking at.


Fanning grades are favoured for the speed and convenience with which you can consistently brew a strong cup of good tea. 


Final thoughts


The following video does a fantastic job of showing the interplay between these variables and how they come together to affect the final sip. It will also teach you how to sip your tea in an unbelievably obnoxious way. 


Try it and see how your family and friends react. 

Hopefully this has left you slightly more illuminated on the subject of tea grading. 


Just like wine, beer, coffee, olive oil or any consumable that people really nerd out on, tea has an incredibly rich and complicated grading system.


But at the end of the day, the only grading system anyone really needs is as simple as... "do I like it?"

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