A Guide to the Tea Grading System By Christopher Heale – Herbs & Kettles

A Guide to the Tea Grading System

One of the most confusing aspects of the tea world is the complicated historical nomenclature and terminology that needs to be unraveled and deciphered. A common stumbling block for newbies to the world of teas (and even for more advanced tea lovers) is the tea grading system associated with teas grown in India, Sri Lanka and Kenya (which was developed under the British system).
by Christopher Heale
a batch of high quality teas produced in the factory of India
One of the most confusing aspects of the tea world is the complicated historical nomenclature and terminology that needs to be unraveled and deciphered. A common stumbling block for newbies to the world of teas (and even for more advanced tea lovers) is the tea grading system associated with teas grown in India, Sri Lanka and Kenya (which was developed under the British system).

Demystifying the Art of Tea Grading

These grades are made up of a string of letters and numbers such as FBOP, OPA, and the alphabet soup of SFTGFOP1, which can be very confusing to follow. In this blog, we present a guide to the tea leaf grading system and explain the meaning behind these terms as they pertain to Indian teas. Hopefully, reading this will leave you feeling more confident in your understanding of tea nomenclature and help expand your exploration of the wonderful world of specialty teas.

Exploring Leaf Types, Sizes, and Quality Levels in Indian Teas

Firstly, the grading system is designed to be able to distinguish different quality leaf types, sizes, and composition within batches of tea production. The system was mainly introduced as a response to mechanical production methods in India following the industrialisation of tea. Prior to industrialisation, tea was created via the orthodox method which involved hand picking and processing and led to a whole leaf tea at the end of production. However, the automated machine production led to crushed and broken leaves being made, and gradation was needed to separate the different quality levels of the tea.

When a batch of tea has been produced, it is sorted via a vertically layered sieve system, with each layer capturing leaf material of different sizes. The top sieve captures the highest grade or ‘whole leaf’ grade (although this is somewhat of a misnomer, see later), the second sieve down captures the smaller ‘broken leaf’ grade, while the third sieve down captures the very small ‘fanning’ grade. The material that falls through all the sieves to the factory floor becomes known as the ‘dust’ grade. It is these fanning and dust grade teas that are often used in cheap commercial tea bags seen in big name brands on your supermarket shelves. It is also important to note that the countries that use the tea grading system predominantly produce oxidized black teas, and so the grading system is specifically designed for them.

The benchmark for the black tea leaf grade is known as Orange Pekoe (OP) grade which, confusingly, has nothing to do with the color or flavor of orange as is often thought. In fact, the name orange derives from the Dutch ‘House of Orange’ as it was the Dutch East India Company who first brought tea to Europe.

The term pekoe derives from the Chinese term bai hao, which roughly translates as white down.

The white down refers to small white hairs that grow on the outside of young buds and leaves on the camellia sinensis tea plant and can provide a sweetness to a tea when steeped. The popularization of the term Orange Pekoe is attributed to Thomas Lipton in the 1800s.

So, in practical terms, what actually defines the OP grade?

Well, to understand the tea leaf grading system is to understand the structure of the camellia sinensis tea plant. The picture below shows the structure of the camellia sinensis tea plant and we can see that each of the leaves on the plant have a name.A picture of camellia sinensis tea plant where each leaves on the plant have a name

The bud of the plant is called the Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP), the first unfurled leaf is the Orange Pekoe (OP), followed by the Pekoe, the Pekoe Souchong, Souchong, Congou, and Bohea. Typically, when a picker harvests the plant, they will pick the bud and first two leaves (i.e. the flowery orange pekoe, orange pekoe, and the pekoe) for processing. So the benchmark Orange Pekoe (OP) grade refers to a tea that consists mainly of the first leaf below the bud, and that comes from the top layer (whole leaf grade) of the sieving process. If the leaf material comes from the second layer of the sieve but was processed from an Orange Pekoe leaf, then this becomes known as Broken Orange Pekoe (or BOP for short). This logic also continues to the third layer of the sieve which becomes the Orange Pekoe Fanning (OPF).

More On Grading of Teas

a comparison between the different tea grades

Now you have an idea of how the grading system works, here are a list of the different grades:

Whole leaf Grades:

whole leaf tea

Whole leaf grade refers to the highest quality level of tea, where the leaves are left intact and unbroken during processing, resulting in whole, unfragmented leaves. This grade is often associated with superior flavor, aroma, and visual appeal in the world of tea.


Special Finest  Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe


Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe


Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe


Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe


Flowery Orange Pekoe


Orange pekoe

Broken-leaf tea:

broken leaf tea displayed on a tray

Broken-leaf tea refers to tea that has undergone tearing or fragmentation while retaining its leaf-like appearance in recognisable, larger pieces.


Golden flowery broken orange pekoe


Flowery broken orange pekoe


Golden broken orange pekoe


Broken orange pekoe one

Green Tea Grading System:

loose leaf green tea

Loose leaf green tea grading refers to the classification and categorization of green teas based on various factors such as leaf appearance, size, color, aroma, and quality. This grading system helps differentiate and determine the overall quality and characteristics of different green tea varieties.


Young Hyson


Fine Young Hyson


Gun Powder




Fine Hyson






Darjeeling fannings tea leaves in a spoon

Fannings refer to finely fragmented tea leaf pieces that maintain a distinctive coarse texture, often utilized as the preferred grade of tea in tea bags.


Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings Extra Special - The highest grade of fannings, visually resembling broken-leaf teas, with some larger, intact leaf pieces. Mostly found in Ceylon teas.


Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings - Common in Ceylon teas, uncommon in Indian and Chinese teas.


Tippy Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings - Rarely used, mainly found in Kerala teas. Higher in tips but more broken than FBOPF.


Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings - General grade for broken leaf particles.


Flowery Orange Fannings - Relatively finely broken, with a substantial amount of tips. Typically of good quality, but rarely sold.


Golden Orange Fannings - Lower grade fannings used in blending and flavoring, mainly found in Assam teas.


Dust type tea powder that is usually packed in tea bags used in brewing tea

Dust consists of tea particles in a powdered form, much finer than fannings, resulting from the production of superior tea grades. It is important to note that tea varieties like Matcha, made by pulverizing larger leaf pieces or the tea plant, do not fall under the category of dust.


Orange Pekoe Dust


Broken Orange Pekoe Dust


Broken Orange Pekoe Fine Dust


Fine Dust


Dust A

Spl. D

Special Dust


Golden Dust


Orthodox Dust

Now that you are aware of the Tea Grading system, find out more about tea flavor wheel!

Ah, so things escalated quickly there right? Ok, so we know what OP and FOP are; but what about the rest? Well, Golden means; the presence of buds or leaves in the tea that have turned golden during the oxidation process,

Tippy means; that the tea has a very high proportion of tips or buds,

Finest refers to younger, smaller, more ‘fine’ leaves in the tea and special refers to the highest grade within that class.

So FTGFOP means a tea that has a high proportion of fine, young buds and tips that are mostly golden in color and predominantly come from the top of the camellia sinensis plant. Easy right?

As a caveat however, these tea leaf grades do not necessarily refer to the ‘quality’ of the tea and the standard is somewhat left to the producer to decide. For example, a SFTGFOP may sound impressive but it really refers to the ‘look’ of the tea and doesn’t necessarily equate to great taste if the tea is poorly produced to begin with. Also, the name ‘whole leaf’ is something of a misnomer.

If you buy a SFTGFOP and open up the package you’ll often find broken pieces and leaves that are torn or ripped. This is mostly a consequence of black tea production via machinery which always incurs some maceration of the leaf. In fact, very few producers in India truly make whole leaf teas which requires a lot of production by hand and very delicate rolling of the leaves so that they don’t break (thus is very expensive to produce).

Fortunately, Herbs and Kettles carry the highest quality truly whole leaf teas produced in India. Now you have an idea behind the grading system, why not try one of our high quality whole leaf Darjeeling teas.

Happy Steeping!