What Is Orange Pekoe Tea?

New and long-standing tea drinkers have all likely come across the name ‘Orange Pekoe’ at one point or the other. If you’re new to tea, your word association may have conjured many orange-tinged visuals. But if that’s off the mark, then what is Orange Pekoe Tea? 

Orange Pekoe Tea, or Orange Pekoe, is part of a European grading system for black teas grown in certain Asian countries. If your word association summoned something orange-colored or orange-flavored, it’s time for a reset. But, rest assured, you’re not the only person to make this mistake.

This article aims to shed light on what Orange Pekoe Tea is, and to debunk some common misconceptions about it. We’ll explore its history, and outline nuances of the classification and its significance.

What Is Orange Pekoe Tea?

I’ve discovered that one of the best ways to understand what something means is by first understanding what it is not. Clear the misperceptions and make room for the right information.

Orange Pekoe Tea is not a specific type of tea with an orange flavor, aroma, or color. Rather, Orange Pekoe is simply a grading system for black tea. The international community uses it to grade the tea according to the quality, condition, and size of leaves.

The teas that are graded according to this classification are primarily black teas from Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. Although a part of the name Orange Pekoe (OP) has its origin in China, Chinese black teas are not usually graded by this system. Another exception to the grading system is the tea dust and fannings mainly used in commercially manufactured tea bags.

History Of Orange Pekoe Tea

Given how long the Chinese have been drinking tea, it makes sense for a part of this name to have its origins in China. Theories of the real origins of the name abound and we’ll hit on the most popular ones.

Pekoe /pek-ho/ comes from the Chinese word bai hao or pek-ho and it describes the white/silver down hairs that are found on the underside of some types of tea bush. The leaves with these hairs are the smallest and youngest on the plant.

The Orange part of the name likely has its origins in the Dutch domination of the tea market throughout the 18th century. The Dutch royal family at the time was the noble House of Orange-Nassau and they drank the best teas available. On introducing the black tea to the public, they dubbed it ‘Orange’ pekoe.

Characteristics Of Orange Pekoe Tea

Now that you know there are no orange peels or slices in the Orange Pekoe tea, here are some highlights to understand:

  • Orange Pekoe black tea has whole loose leaves, not the fragments or dust left after the good leaves have been processed. This means it’s moderate to high quality.
  • According to the “grade” hierarchy, Orange Pekoe is the larger leaf below the buds, and smaller buds and leaves that are graded above OP have names such as Special, Finest, Tippy, and Flowery.
  • Only new flush tea leaves are used to make Orange Pekoe tea. A flush is a bundle of the two youngest leaves and the leaf bud they pluck. Those three leaves are the most tender of the Camellia sinensis plant and produce the best tea. 
  • Orange Pekoe tea can refer to a large leaf tea from a single estate or to a blend of large leaf teas from various gardens, both within and outside a region or country. 
  • The taste of orange pekoe tea is often rich. Despite lacking the crispness of regular black tea, its flavor is more elegant, and the aroma is more delicate.

Grading And Classification

After harvesting, the tea leaves are separated into different sizes to ensure a smooth brew when making it. Some leaves are picked for their rich flavor, some for their vibrant color, and others to provide full body and consistency.

There are no ‘official’ entries of the Orange Pekoe name to describe black tea because it developed amongst industry buyers. This grading is not compulsory.

Before they developed machinery to harvest tea leaves, all tea leaves were harvested by using the fingertips. Today, the term Orange Pekoe that was reserved for hand-picked tea leaves also applies to mechanically made tea products. 

Remember that the grades are according to the size and wholeness of the leaves. This means they can grade broken leaf teas alongside whole/loose leaf teas. While leafy grades come mainly from the tougher and more mature leaves, broken grades often have large contributions from the more tender shoots.

Here’s the classification:

 Whole Leaf

  • OP — Orange Pekoe: A large leaf tea with pointed leaves that were harvested when the end buds were opening into leaves.
  • FOP — Flowering Orange Pekoe: This tea comes from the flush of each new shoot. It will have fine, young leaves that will be smaller than the leaves of the OP grade.
  • GFOP — Golden Flowering Orange Pekoe: This is an FOP with ‘golden tips’ (unopened buds).
  • TGFOP — Tippy Golden Flowering Orange Pekoe: A tea with a higher proportion of ‘golden tips’ (unopened buds) than a GFOP.
  • FTGFOP — Finest Tippy Golden Flowering Orange Pekoe: One of the highest grades in the market, with exceptional quality leaves.

Broken Leaf

  • BP — Broken Pekoe: The commonest broken pekoe grade.
  • BOP — Broken Orange Pekoe: The primary broken grade.
  • TGF BOP1 — Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: They have a high amount of tips. 

When you buy tea, look out for the OP term on the label. It will let you know you are buying quality tea, with whole leaves or broken leaves. It never describes tea dust or fannings.

A cup of fine Orange Pekoe tea is often preferred by tea aficionados straight-up. However, adding a little honey or other sweeteners can compliment the flavor. Please share your thoughts or recommendations regarding Orange Pekoe in the comments below.

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