Your Essential Guide to Buying Tea

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A Tea Pucker at a Tea Plantation
A Tea Pucker at a Tea Plantation in Nuwara Eliyah Sri Lanka

When you buy tea, do you just choose the box of tea bags on sale or are you more discerning and buy loose leaf tea by the type?

In the supermarkets, we don’t get much choice. We certainly don’t get the chance to buy tea by the different grades. Tea should be like wine, bought on the basis of type, origin and terroir.

I like to buy my tea from specialists tea shops where I can select and taste the selection before purchase. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many tea shops in London that sell tea like this.

You can buy tea as an investment too. Old, aged Pu-Erh is highly sought after and is in a whole alternative investment class by itself. Pu Erh tea is usually sold in round cakes with all the producer and age details on the wrapper. I have a couple of these teas stored but will probably open them before their investment potential is met. Of course, the older the tea the more valuable it is and there are distinct parallels with investing in Bordeaux. Today, with the big investors originating from China, you will find the bigger auction houses holding regular Tea Auctions for old wheels of Pu Erh tea.

On my recent visit to Sri Lanka, I learnt a lot about the production and grading of tea. It is all dependent on the origin, the size of the leaves and the level of fermentation and oxidation.

Types of Tea

When we say tea, we usually mean black tea. There are a few other broad categories of tea and they differ by colour and type.

White Tea

This is usually just the buds of a tea plant. Care is taken when plucking these buds and they can’t be bruised. These leaves go through minimal oxidation.

Green Tea

These are from the same tea plant as black tea but are not oxidised so the colour doesn’t change. They are just steamed to prevent oxidation and then dried.

Black Tea

Black tea is fermented/ oxidised and dried. Within black tea, there are several different classifications of the tea. These are dependant on the leaves.

Chinese Teas


Matcha Tea

Matcha Tea Grinding Stone
Manual Matcha Tea Grinding Stone

Matcha tea is very different from the other teas above as they are grown and produced in a different way. All the Indian and Chinese teas use whole or parts of the tea leaves. Matcha Green Tea is unique that it is usually very finely ground and has a vibrant green colour. Matcha tea plants are grown in the shade to encourage an over production of chlorophyll.

There are several grades of Matcha, ceremonial, ingredient and food grade. The label is not the indication of quality unfortunately. the only way to determine this is by tasting. A high grade Matcha is smooth and silky and has no bitterness. A lower grade Matcha is coarse and gritty, has a yellowy colour and can taste astringent. Beware of some products which are not Matcha and is just cheaper, lower grade green teas sold as Matcha. These are good for regular daily drinking or an inexpensive subsitute for cooking.

How Black tea is graded

For an industry that has been around for centuries, there isn’t a universal tea grading standard. Every tea producing country has their own grading system. There are similarities in the systems as they do tend to grade the tea quality based on origin, soil, rainfall, elevation, season, harvesting method and the particular flush of that tea plant.

In a tea factory, tea grading is the last stage of the tea production process. It is simply sorting the tea leaves into different sizes and strengths.  These are the ones used in a Sri Lankan Tea Factory that I visited recently.

“Ceylon Tea” which is brand name for all Sri Lankan certified tea is grown and produced to strict guidelines. According to the Sri Lanka Tea Board, all tea produced there can now be Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea’, certifying that it has been produced without the use of any ozone-depleting substances.

Sri Lankan Tea Grading System

FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
This grade of tea would refer to broken orange pekoe with the addition of a small portion of “tips.”

FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
This is usually the grade of the largest leaves. This orange pekoe grade also includes some “tips” or leaf buds.

BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe
The leaves in broken grades of orange pekoe tea are reduced in size usually by machine. This allows for more surface area, causing the tea to infuse faster than whole leaf varieties. This is usually what we know as English Breakfast and brews into a stronger tea than the Orange Pekoe.

OP – Orange Pekoe
Orange Pekoe grades are leaves that are plucked close to the end of a branch. Besides the buds and flowers, they are the youngest and smallest of tea leaves found on a branch. This results in quite a light tea.

P or PEK – Pekoe
Pekoe grade tea leaves are slightly less coarse and smaller than Souchong

S – Souchong
The larger fourth and fifth leaves away from the prized bud, which are located closest to the bottom of the branch. These coarse leaves are twisted lengthwise and often used for various Chinese smoked teas like the smokey Lapsang Souchong . The original Lapsang tea was produced in China in the Fujian Province.

F – Fanning
A very small, broken leaf that is slightly larger than dust.

D – Dust
The smallest of particles left after sifting which is often used in tea bags to infuse rapidly and make a brew that is strong and robust.

Flavoured teas like Earl Grey is just one of the grades of tea with added spices or essential oils.

Before you reach for that box of PG Tips in the supermarket, will you now stop and try some other teas?

afternoon tea
Enjoying a great cup of tea

This article was written in association with Kent & Sussex Tea and Coffee Company. 


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