Atlas Tea Club

My Account

What is Orange Pekoe Black Tea?

Not all black tea is created equal

Tea, just like nearly any other culinary work of art like coffee, wine, cheese, or anything really, possesses different levels of rarity, excellence, and quality. Though some may say most of these conceptions are purely subjective, there do exist ruling bodies that determine if a food or beverage is or is not up to the levels of quality that some may consider expensive, exquisite, or highly desirable. 

Today we are not here to pass judgment on whether different conceptions of quality should or should not exist in the culinary and tea worlds but rather to explore more about Orange Pekoe. Keep reading to learn more about this stellar tea type.

What is Orange Pekoe?

While Orange Pekoe might sound like a leaf type like how Longjing or Tianshan are named for specific leaves while green, black, or Oolong are different leaf types, Orange Pekoe is rather a grade that Indian, Sri Lankan, and other tea leaves can attain. 

Orange Pekoe refers to black teas that have been graded to a high standard of excellence and can be labeled as Orange Pekoe on the market. Orange Pekoe, despite its name, does not refer to orange fruit nor does it possess orange flavoring at all. 

In fact, the name origin is a bit uncertain, with “pekoe” possibly coming from a dialect of Chinese. The word might have come from “peh-ho” meaning “white hair or down” in reference to the silvery-white down that remains on the tea leaves and buds. Another theory is that it came from “baihua” meaning “white flower” also in reference to the white down of the buds. 

The “Orange” part also has some uncertain origins. It is believed Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton’s Tea fame, came up with the name for marketing purposes. Some think that the word refers to the Dutch House of Orange in reference to the Dutch efforts to bring tea westward or to just give the tea an aristocratic air to it. Another theory is that "orange" refers to the color of the leaves and downy hairs as they are left to oxidize, taking on a coppery-orange color.  

No matter the name's origins, attaining "Orange Pekoe" status is a near Herculean task for black tea leaves. To be labeled as Orange Pekoe, black tea leaves must meet some stringent standards. 

Tea leaves must be whole leaves of a certain particular size. To attain the highest level of quality certification, the leaves must come from the newest and freshest flush of leaves. This will include the leaf bud and is graded by being run through a special mesh screen. The leaves must be wholly intact and not have any rips, breaks, or tears. Ideally, Pekoe will retain its silvery-white downy “hairs” which tea buds tend to lose after the first few weeks that they emerge and so retaining the silvery down is indicative of the leaves being picked in the prime of the season. The buds and tips of the leaves are known to be especially flavorful and aromatic, preserving a unique sweetness and sublimity hard to capture with tea leaves picked later in the season.

Orange Pekoe Leaf Grades

Within the world of Pekoe, there are even higher and more sublime levels of grading that the leaves can attain. The different levels and their unique acronyms are as follows:

  • Orange Pekoe: Known as OP, this is the main variety of Orange Pekoe one can attain. OP grade is comprised of leaves that are long and wiry but lacking tips.
  • Orange Pekoe 1: The next grade up, OP1 is comprised of Orange Pekoe leaves that are more delicate but still mainly compiled from wiry and long leaves. The brewed tea liquor for OP1 is light. 
  • Orange Pekoe A: OPA is a bold upgrade of Orange Pekoe. The leaves are rolled and wound in a particular manner to seal in flavor and enhance oxidization. The leaves are typically long.
  • Orange Pekoe Superior: OPS is a special type of Orange Pekoe that comes from Indonesia.
  • Flowery Orange Pekoe: This one is abbreviated as FOP and is a high level of quality for Orange Pekoe. Long leaves with some tips thrown in, this grade is exceptionally high for Indian black teas and Chinese teas alike. This grade even has a higher grade only for this category, the Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 or FOP1.
  • Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: This grade, known as GFOP, is another highly coveted grade. The GFOP will include more of the delicate tips of the leaves.
  • Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: TGFOP is a high-level grade that also includes most of the leaf and bud tips for an exceptional grade of tea. A higher level of TGFOP also exists. One that is reserved for only the most impressive tea leaves, it is known as Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1, or TGFOP1.
  • Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: When one thought that Orange Pekoe grading couldn’t get any higher, here we have the FTGFOP. When you reach this level you are at a truly sublime level of black tea.
  • Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: This especially long name, also known as SFTGOP, is a designation used only for the best of the best leaves found among the Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe class. Once your leaves reach this level they are basically legendary!

As one can surmise, many of these designations are based on leaf sizes and whether they are fully intact or not. There are a ton more categories and subcategories for broken and irregularly shaped leaves that make up their own whole huge catalog of levels. 

However, for today we would like to focus on the Orange Pekoe in particular. Many of the subdivisions that are below the OP label are no longer even identified as Orange Pekoe themselves. 

Orange Pekoe, exquisite black tea leaves

It is hard to really ascertain just how exceptional and sublime Orange Pekoe leaves are. They undergo a very strict reviewing process to see just how perfect these leaves are. If the leaves pass all the tests and stipulations as per Orange Pekoe standards of excellence, then they get to earn that most coveted of titles, Orange Pekoe!