Quick Search

What Is Black Tea Grading?

Read time: 2 mins
A closeup image of Assam TGFOP black tea.
Christopher C. Oct 11, 2023

Getting into specialty tea is an exciting journey full of new flavors and options. Say goodbye to the “tea” you were choking down before. Most tea names are generally straightforward, but there is one sore point of confusion: tea grades. Just as coffee is assessed for quality, so is tea, but the “language” is far less universal, varying greatly by origin. Also, teas are graded after they've been processed and only by look. Beauty may be in the eye of the tea-holder, but that doesn't mean it will taste good.

How Is Whole Leaf Black Tea Graded?

Black tea grades are denoted by series of letters (sometimes ending in numbers) that begin specifically and end generally. For example, SFTGFOP stands for Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. To a newbie, this means nothing. At the very least, it could be interpreted that this tea tastes like flowers and oranges, is fancy, and whatever a pekoe is. Fancy is sort of correct, but there's much more to unpack here, so let's break it down in reverse order.

  1. Orange Pekoe = This is the foundation upon which higher tea grades are built. Though Orange Pekoe isn't the highest-quality tea, its name still means it's a quality grade. It's like pizza. Lackluster pizza can still be good pizza.
  2. Flowery = This refers to the presence of buds—called “tips”—which are sweet, unopened tea leaves that are harvested by hand.
  3. Golden = In addition to looking golden, Golden refers to a higher-than-usual concentration of tips.
  4. Tippy = Means the tea contains a high ratio of fine tips.
  5. Finest = Indicates impeccably high quality.
  6. Special = Is of even higher quality.

Each addition to a grade's acronym demonstrates an increase in quality. Thankfully, SFTGFOP is as fine as it gets without adding numbers into the mix. Nowhere will you find Super Ultra Mega Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.

How Is Broken Leaf Black Tea Graded?

Broken tea leaves tend to be stronger when brewed than whole leaves and are still considered high-quality. The only difference between whole- and broken-leaf grading is a B is added after Orange Pekoe (OP) in the name.

Are There Any More Tea Grades?

Are you kidding? With how granular whole-leaf grading gets, of course there are more black tea grades. Though they don't sound as appealing—Fannings and Dust—they aren't necessarily low-quality teas. Like we said before, tea grading is all about looks, not taste. Fannings and dust are tea leaves crushed and cut into teeny-tiny particles. They're often used in tea bags and iced tea mix, as they release all the goods much faster than leaf tea since more particles are directly in contact with the water.

Positively Tea only sources high-quality, organic whole-leaf teas, so you'll never receive a bag of Dust. If you're a fan of Fannings, though, I bet we have your favorite tea in a broad, beautiful leaf. Not trying to brag, but you might just like it more. You'll just have to taste and see.

Should I Care About Tea Grades?

If your tea tastes good, the grade shouldn't matter. Understanding the grade, however, can be a means of more closely connecting with the tea you're enjoying. After all, SFTGFOP1 and the like are gorgeous teas that required so much care to cultivate. A little applause is warranted. The same goes for Dust tea. Really, all tea is beautiful. Whether or not it tastes as good as it looks is a whole different article.

Leave a comment