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Arlette Rohmer, fondatrice des Jardins de Gaïa

Darjeeling black teas: Understanding the different grades

SFTGFOP 1, TGFOP, OP, BOP1…, you have almost certainly noticed a series of letters and numbers printed just after the name of the tea on the packaging for our Darjeeling black teas… For most people this classification is a mystery so we thought we’d explain what the letters mean. Essentially it is a method of classifying the types of leaves contained in the packet according to their quality. This grading has more to do with the state of the leaves, which may be whole, broken or crushed, than the quality of the flavour, although the two are not unconnected. As you will see, as well as taking the grade into account, it’s also very important to consider seasonality when seeking a Darjeeling black tea to suit your taste.

A little history…

The beginning of the classification system for Darjeeling black teas that we know today – the most comprehensive and precise on the market – originated from a desire to have a benchmark for judging the state of the leaves to facilitate the tea trade with the West.

This classification would have begun with the Dutch when they started producing tea on the island of Java and graded the quality of the harvests using terms derived from the names of traditional Chinese teas. The Dutch did not rely on established knowledge, because they didn’t have any, but rather on the appearance of their production compared to that of Chinese teas.

When the first teas arrived in Amsterdam from Java in 1835 on the frigate Algiers, they used the Chinese terms Pekoe, deriving from the Cantonese word “Pak-ho » (meaning « down » or « hair » on the terminal bud) and Souchong (meaning the lower leaves) to roughly assign the grade.

The term Orange Pekoe referred to a « royal » quality in a nod to the name of the Dutch Orange Nassau dynasty. However, according to other, earlier sources, the colour could simply refer to the orange colour of the tips of the young buds when they are withered. This term was first used by the Dutchman Jacobus Isidorus Lonevijk Levien Jacobson, who introduced tea to Java, and was the word he used to describe the teas produced on the island.

Later, in 1840, the Dutch grading system was adopted by the English in Assam, India, and then in Darjeeling from 1871, in the very detailed form that we know today.

A very detailed grading system

To give the best possible description of tea leaves, the English separated the description of whole leaves from the description of broken leaves.

For whole tea leaves, the grading is as follows:

The F.O.P grades (Flowery Orange Pekoe) designate fine plucking + 2 leaves with, in order of increasing quality:

O.P. (Orange Pekoe) which designates fine plucking, but taking place later when the bud is unfurled.

P. (Pekoe) designating a tea without buds.

Souchong designating a tea made up of the oldest leaves and therefore the lowest quality.

  • GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): fine plucking containing lots of golden buds;


  • TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): fine plucking containing only golden buds;


  • TGFOP 1 (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One) : TGFOP of a superior quality ;


  • FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) : TGFOP of a very high quality;


  • FTGFOP1 (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One): of an even higher quality than FTGFOP ;


  • SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): FTGFOP of an exceptional quality;


  • SFTGFOP 1 (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One): and even higher quality than SFTGFOP.


For broken leaves (BT, Broken Tea) the grading is as follows:

  • BPS (Broken Pekoe Souchong): roughly picked and of a lower quality;
  • BP (Broken Pekoe): lower leaves (2-3rd) without buds;
  • BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe): fine plucking, but with broken leaves;
  • BOP 1 (Broken Orange Pekoe): high quality BOP;
  • FBOP (Flowery BOP): even more finely plucked, but with broken leaves;
  • GBOP (Golden BOP): containing lots of golden buds, with brokenleaves;
  • GFBOP (Golden Flowery BOP): even more finely plucked containing lots of golden buds, broken leaves;
  • TGBOP (Tippy Golden BOP): comprised entirely of golden buds, but broken leaves.

Note that at Jardins de Gaïa we only offer whole leaves with the exception of a few BOP and TGBOP.

The influence of the grade on the flavour of the tea

Whole leaves will generally produce a more aromatic and complex infusion while broken leaves will produce a simpler, darker and more full-bodied tea. In the case of the latter, brewing time should be shorter so as not to produce too strong a tea.

The higher the grade, whether for whole leaf teas or broken leaf teas, the more complex and fine the brew will be because it will contain more buds.

But aside from the grade, in Darjeeling it is first and foremost the season in which the harvest takes place that has an impact on the resulting flavours of the tea. Between the spring First Flush (FF), summer Second Flush (SF) and autumn Third Flush (TF) – harvests that are distinguished with the letters that come after the grade of the tea (eg: Frost Tea SFTGFOP1 FF ) – the differences in flavour profile are very noticeable. A First Flush is reputed to be fresher and more lively, a Second Flush more fruity often with characteristic notes of muscat grapes, while a Third Flush wins us over with its full-flavour and its maturity with beautiful woody and fruity notes. It is therefore as important to consider seasonality as it is to take into account the grade of tea in order to truly savour the full diversity of Darjeeling teas.

*Georges van Driem, The Tale of tea P664-P667

Écrit par Les Jardins de Gaïa

Pionniers sur le marché des thés et tisanes bio et équitables, Les Jardins de Gaïa proposent, depuis 1994, des grands crus nature, des classiques et des créations maison originales. Privilégiant les petits producteurs et les récoltes manuelles, ils ont développé au fil des années une gamme généreuse et variée de thés, rooibos et tisanes aux qualités gustatives reconnues, ainsi qu’une gamme d’épices bio et prémiums proposée sous la marque Terra Madre. Tel un jardin épanoui, la force des Jardins de Gaïa tient dans la diversité des terroirs et l’engagement des hommes qui la travaillent…

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