Tea Talk: What really is Pekoe Tea?

Have you ever wondered what Pekoe or Orange Pekoe tea was, what it meant, and where it came from? There is uncertainty in the world about the exact origins of these terms (more like centuries old disagreements). What is for certain, is that it refers to a Chinese-Indus-British grading system of the leaves of tea to be harvested. Historically speaking, we refer to it as the “India” grading system or “Western” in more modern terms.

As it was taught to me (by a third generation tea taster), Pekoe has it root in the mistranslation of the Chinese word “Peh-hoe,” which was a term for hairs on the tea bud. (We call that pubescent, in horticulture.)

So what about about orange of orange pekoe? The orange part has nothing to do with flavoring tea with citrus flowers or oils. How orange came into the terminology is up for debate as well. It was the Dutch India Company that was the first to bring tea from China to Europe in commercial trading, so the House of Orange, Dutch-European monarch nobility, may have been honored. The other story is that when a tea is being oxidized (this is one of the a processes that makes Black tea and Oolong different than Green Tea), towards the end, a fine grade turns a brilliant orange before it is dried. From personal experience at working at the only functioning tea plantation in the United States, I have seen this happen. While I would like to say one is more the true than the other, again it was taught to me as both.

So this information is important as two parts relate to actual tea culture and the other is related to western culture of a historical sense. We have known about this grading system within the United States for quite some time, yet through time we have lost it.

A perfect example published of this system within the US dates back to 1879 with Mr. William Saunders, the first Chief of the Gardens and Grounds Division for the Office to Secretary of Agriculture (later known as the USDA). Mr. Saunders pursued crop diversification heavily after the Civil War/War Between the States/War for Southern Independence, one of the those crops was tea. Before the “Great War” as it was referred to by people who wrote Mr Saunders after a request of correspondence on his part, several of them, noted how in 1858 they received tea plants from their congressmen. Yes, back then congressmen handed out plants received by the State Department’s Patent Office (a primordial branch of government that lead to the Sec of Ag and the USDA) from all over the world. Some of them remarked how they grew the plants with ease but didn’t know how to actually make the tea. Others mention how their plants became neglected due to the war.

Mr Saunder’s had compiled as much information as he could in a report to the Secretary of Agriculture, within it, he published the information as it pertained to grading of tea leaves.  Unlike the grades I was taught, which was only for Black tea, he also published the corresponding grades for green tea, hence again we can clearly see just like the tea plant, it is heavily borrowed from the chinese.

Tea leaf grades composite

So as you can see, the old tea saying, “Two leaves and bud,” is shorten to just saying “Pekoe” tea because it is the lowest grade tea leaf if all of them are processed together. What is important to understand is the different grades that make up the Pekoe. Flowery Pekoe is the bud and potently a leaf that is not fully expanded. Orange Pekoe is traditionally the first leaf that has expanded below the bud. The Pekoe is the second leaf that has expand below the bud. Ideally, when harvesting by hand or machine, the pekoe is what most people are after for processing. It is not unrealistic in mechanical harvesting to end up harvesting some leaves below this, depending on the machine, the “flush of growth,” who is operating the machine, to name a few reasons.

What I will say that once it is harvested and goes to processing, there is another grading process that takes place during the “sorting” of the tea due to processing for teabags. While that are other grading systems and scales for loose leaf Orthodox made teas, I am just covering what system I have worked under for Black, Oolong, and Green tea production for teabags.

I was taught that there was “finish” (highest final grade of tea made from a crop being runned through rotorvane processing), “seconds” (first grade below finish, typically a little more coarser leaf), “fanning thirds” (second below finish), and “fiber” (the leftover stems for which the tea leaves were attached to). Some may dispute this grading, but it is again based on my experience and education from working in the tea industry within the United States.

The most important thing about knowing this grading, was the ability to be trained to tell the difference between “finish and seconds” on a consistent basis, without visual inspection of the leaf. If you couldn’t do this by your tongue, then there was no point of you trying to learn all the teas from around the world. I did learn the difference, and I think it is important for those wanting to produce tea for commercial purposes within the United States, it is very important to learn as well. Otherwise how will you know how to grade out and blend your product?

After all of this you might be wondering well what about “Matcha,” “Tencha,” and “Sencha” green teas from Japan, how do they fit into these grades? Well, just like Vietnamese tea, it is a different tea culture, that deserves a posting of its’ own for a different day.

We hope this information has helped you to “Grow Forward,” and in the future we will mix in more tea talk postings to give you a better understanding of tea while our “Carolina Cup” brand continues to grow.

Take care,




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