Decoding loose tea labels: the “alphabet” of black teas.

Loose black tea leaves. Photo: FreeDigitalPhotos.com

Have you ever seen a tea catalog, or visited a tea shop, and noticed exotic-sounding words and letters that are the names of some teas? Wonder what it all means? Companies that sell a variety of unflavored teas often use a system of nomenclature – like nicknames or “tea jargon” – to indicate certain types of information about each tea that they sell. This information includes the place where the tea leaves were grown, the way they were processed, the size of the leaf, and even the part of the tea plant they grew on. All of these qualities influence the finished flavor, aroma, and color of the tea leaves and brewed tea liquor.

With black tea, the exotic-sounding words in the name are generally the name of the region, estate, or tea garden where the tea leaves were grown; the tea leaves will be a blend of those harvested from the plants in the indicated area, which will generally be located somewhere in India, China, Sri Lanka, Africa, or South America. There is also one tea garden in England and one or two in the United States.  Following the regional name, there will often be a series of letters; these indicate the grade of tea, or leaf size. As part of the harvesting process, the tea leaves are sifted and sorted according to size; this helps to ensure that the smaller leaves and pieces – which infuse and grow bitter more quickly than larger leaves – are kept together, and the end product will have leaves of a similar size, and a consistent brewing time and flavor.

Sometimes a glossary is in order so that these names can be deciphered, so here is a list of the main abbreviations used in labeling black tea:

B/Broken – describes a blend of broken, rather than whole, tea leaves. They brew faster and have stronger flavor, but get bitter faster, too.

F/Fannings or D/Dust – when at the end of the other letters, indicates the smallest particles of broken tea leaf, tiny enough to be blown away by air from a fan. This produces a quick-brewing, strongly flavored tea that is used for tea bags.  It is not swept up from the floor of the tea factory!

F/Finest or S/Special – when at the beginning of the other letters, indicates slow-growing leaves from high mountain elevations, resulting in concentrated flavor and superior quality.

G/Golden – superior quality leaves that include the gold-colored young leaf bud at the very tip of the branch. This bud adds a sweet flavor.

P/Pekoe – usually a broken Ceylon or Sri Lankan tea leaf, curly and without any leaf tips.

S/Souchong – usually a Chinese tea leaf that is twisted and has a light flavor when brewed.

T/Tippy – contains young leaves from the tip of the tea plant branch, or just the tips of the leaves, which are slightly sweet.

CTC/Crush, Tear and Curl – describes a method of processing black tea leaves before drying and packaging.

BPS/Broken Pekoe Souchong – medium-size leaves that are broken in processing, producing a faster-brewing, stronger flavor tea.

FOP/Flowery Orange Pekoe – usually an Indian tea leaf that is long, loosely twisted, and has a “crushed flower” look.

OP/Orange Pekoe – describes a processing style and leaf size: medium size tea leaves, tightly rolled. Popular since about the 1940s.

Hopefully, those tea descriptions won’t be so intimidating for you! You are closer to being able to “talk tea” with the most knowledgeable of tea experts, and it will be easier to buy yourself some really good loose tea.

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.

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