Tea: The Lingo

by Nina Rubin

The sophisticated dining public seems to have finally embraced the wide world of fine wines, going beyond French varieties and into the wilds of the world’s vineyards. This same crew is now expanding its palate to include gourmet teas – from single-variety to blended, and black to white. With this move towards connoisseurship comes a need to grasp the terminology that is associated with quality teas.

In fact, many of the intricacies of tea lingo and appreciation can be better understood by analogy with wine—there’s the same discussion of appellations, terroir, aroma, body, finish, and so on. In addition to these descriptive terms, there is also a host of expressions and acronyms used by tea connoisseurs and professionals to describe the nature and quality of tea leaves. Indian tea, for example, has its own nomenclature. It consists of acronyms that describe three aspects of the leaves: the type, size, and amount of quality leaves used in specific teas.

Acronyms
If terms like TGFOP and BOP sound like a foreign language, here’s a list to help you get started:

CL or SP/CL (Clonal or Special Clonal) indicate that the tea was produced from clonal cuttings of tea plants with desirable characteristics.

P (Pekoe) is a grade of small, whole leaf tea.

OP (Orange Pekoe) designates a large or whole tea leaf particle.

BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) refers to a grade that is finer than OP.

OPF (Orange Pekoe Fannings) is the smallest grade of Orange Pekoe.

FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) refers to tea made from the not yet fully opened end bud and one new leaf.

G + (Golden i.e. GFOP or GBOP) indicates that the tea contains young tips or buds that have been picked early in the growing season. The term refers to the fact that young tips tend to have a golden hue. These leaves impart a more concentrated flavor, and thus are considered a higher grade than plain BOP and FOP teas.

T + (Tippy i.e. TGFOP) characterizes tea with a high percentage of golden tips.

F + (Finest i.e. FTGFOP) is used to identify high-quality teas.

SF + (Super Finest i.e. SFTGFOP) designates tea of exceptional quality.

Leaf Size

In order to make sense of the language of tea, keep in mind that tea is usually classified according to leaf size. During the production process, tea leaves are often broken or crushed; these particles are sorted into roughly three grades: whole or large leaf particles, broken leaves, and fannings or dust, which are the smallest. Some people prefer larger leaves, which tend to be more delicate and aromatic, and make a lighter liquor. Others like the smaller grades, which impart a stronger flavor and make a darker infusion. These grades also require a shorter steeping time, as the steeping time generally increases with the size of the leaf.

Flushes

The term “flush” refers to the picking cycle of the leaves. Some teas, especially oolongs, are harvested in cycles, usually four times a year. The first and second flushes are generally considered to be the highest grades. However, equating flush with tea quality is risky business, as each region (and each year) has unique weather patterns that undoubtedly affect the quality of the crop.