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Leaf Grades, Picking Standards, Processing Standards – Objective Criteria for the Assessment of Tea Quality

Objective Criteria for the Assessment of Tea Quality

Besides of our subjective taste, the probably most important and common criteria for the assessment of whether a tea is good or not, or where it is positioned on on the corresponding quality scale, there is also a set of objective criteria being used in the tea industry for the evaluation and classification of tea quality. The related assessment and labeling systems used in individual tea cultivation regions of the world have developed each with their own specific regional characteristics respectively. This way, a variety of grading systems has evolved not only in a broader regional sense, but also individually location- as well as tea-type-specific, with each system reflecting the local particularities accordingly, especially those of a location’s native tea types and cultivars, picking standards and processing traditions. While due to the degree of rarity or effort involved in a picking standard or processing method, labelings assigned based on such quality scales always will find their correspondence in a tea’s price, the resulting scale doesn’t necessarily reflect our subjective taste, which automatically rates any tried tea  – independent of other quality-related information we might have or not – somewhere on our personal scale between “absolutely awesome” via “so-so” to “completely disgusting”. As a matter of fact, our subjective taste even often rates things as ‘good’ that – measured with objective criteria –actually aren’t good at all (an example for this would be artificial soft drinks and sweets), and vice versa (after all, how many children like spinach?).

In order for a quality criteria to b e considered as objective, it’s verification must always yield the same result, independent of location, circumstances and verifying person or institution. Applied to quality criteria for tea, this basically means that a producer labels a tea with specific attributes, which will provide both traders and end customers with information about specific properties of that tea (often taste-relevant properties), and which – whether easily or with greater effort – can be verified and confirmed at any time at a sample of that tea. For reasons of comprehensibility, the following overview of objectively determinable leaf grades, picking standards and processing standards, and the quality classification systems related to them, focuses on the systems and criteria most commonly used for the quality assessment and labeling of tea in the world’s three great historical tea cultivation and processing regions, namely India, China, and Japan. These are showing differences from region to region, but also a range of shared basic elements. For example, the criteria picking period, picking standard and processing standard are playing an central role in all three approaches, though with a different weighting in each approach.

The world's three greatest tea nations - India, China and Japan

The indication of the harvesting period derives from the basic rule that the quality of tea pickings is best in spring and constantly diminishes during the following summer and autumn seasons, before the picking is halted and the plants are given a well-deserved winter break, during which they can accumulate new active and taste substances to drive into the buds and leaves newly emerging in spring again. Also, exceptions from this rule, such as teas yielding a rare, but popular prevernal or particularly well-tasting autumn harvests can be made identifiable for traders, retailers and tea consumers by indicating the picking period.

Jin Xuan winter harvest hoarfrost Oolong tea prepared in Chinese Gong Fu Cha tea ceremonyJin Xuan Oolong No. 12 – highly valued winter harvest, despite the absence of young buds

A Picking Standard basically describes the ratio of picked young buds and adjacent leaves. Examples for this are the 1+2 picking standard (1 bud with 2 leaves,) considered as the optimal picking standard for many Oolong Teas, and the „pure buds“ picking standard characteristic for White Silver Needle Teas. It makes a difference, whether tea is picked manually or by machine: while a given picking standard can be realized comparably exactly with manual picking, the ratio of buds to leaves is always only an average value with machine harvests. This is why the indication of a picking standard is often missing or highly generalized with machine-picked teas.

Best picking standard for many green and Oolong teas : 2+1Best picking standard for many green and Oolong teas: “2+1”

A Processing Standard can have a variety of dimensions, including the specific methods of wielding (indoor or outdoor, covered or open, with or without shifting / turning, duration and frequency of procedures, etc.), heating (roasting or steaming, duration and frequency of procedures , etc.), whether the tea leaves are left in whole or broken, and other locally and tea-type-specific processing characteristics.

Indian Leaf Grades – from Pekoe to SFTGFOP 2

The leaf grading system typically used in India’s worldwide famous tea cultivation regions, such as Daarjeeling, Assam or Sri Lanka, appears to be a bit confusing at first sight. As traditionally mainly black tea is produced in India, the common system of tea leaf grading and picking standards is also based on the picking and processing of black tea. Not only the system’s degree of complexity, whose labeling indicates the wholeness and quality of tea leaves, the portion of young buds in the total leaf material, and the picking period, but also the representation of each indicated feature by a capital letter as an abbreviation makes it initially difficult to capture and understand, especially for newbies to tea. If starting with a basic framework of the most common terms and their abbreviations, though, it’s not even that hard to grab, after all:

Orange Pekoe (= OP) – whole long leaves of good quality, whereas “Pekoe” simply means tea leaf, while there are several versions of where the term “Orange” came from, which however all agree and emphasize that „orange“ here has nothing to do with oranges, as one could easily think as an outsider.

Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) – Orange Pekoe with a low proportion of buds.

Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First Grade (GFOP) – like FOP, but with a higher proportion of buds.

Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) – the tea with the highest proportion of buds.

Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) – with a proportion of ca. 1/4 buds (tippy) the highest quality Indian tea, often processed completely by hand.

FOP 1 / FOP 2 – The number additionally indicates, whether the tea has been picked during the first or second harvesting period.

Broken (B) – where a B appears in the abbreviation, such as in FBOP, the B stands for “Broken” (in the example: Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe), meaning that whole leaves of good quality with a low porportion of buds (or “tips”) have been crushed to smaller pieces. “Broken” leaf grades are quite popular among friends of Indian black teas, as the crushed tea leaves unfold their taste and color in the fusion quicker and more intense than the whole leaves.

Fannings – especially lower quality, non- Orange Pekoe leaves are crushed to tiny flakes for quick and intense unfolding of taste and color. Though this might widely be considered as lower quality, also Fannings qualities have their friends, who might not only fancy these due to their lower price. Fannings-Tees sind – wie „Dust“ (s. u.) – aufgrund der platzsparenden Konsistenz des resultierenden Materials besonders gut für die Darreichung in Teebeuteln geeignet und in dieser Kategorie daher ein weit verbreiteter Standard.

Moreover, Fannings qualities target wide consumer groups by being quite a standard for tea-bagged teas, due to their material consistence, which is favorable for that purpose.

Thus, a system of picking standards and leaf grades has established in India that is binding and transparent for all involved parties, producer, trader, and consumers alike. It allows the producer to divide his tea into several grades of different price level, the trader to evaluate the resulting prices, and the end customer to identify a tea with specific desired characteristics.

Chinese Picking and Processing Standards

The typical Chinese approach to the objective quality evaluation of tea is much less standardized and official than the above-described Indian system. Each individual Chinese tea cultivation region is characterized by its own traditional cultivation and processing tradition as well as by its locally native tea cultivars. The broad spectrum of the elementary processing modes represented in China (green tea, Oolong tea, black tea, white tea, Pu Erh tea, yellow tea), the diversity of varieties and cultivated there, and the highly diversified portfolio of tea types yielded from individual cultivars further contribute to the difficulty of developing a consistent quality evaluation and labeling system. Still, a set of objective criteria for the quality evaluation and labeling of tea and related linguistic usage have emerged in China in the absence of a central regulation.

As manual picking is the standard in China until today, picking standards are expressed with comparably mathematic accuracy. For the highest picking standards, the labelings „Pure Buds“, 1+1 (one bud plus one leaf) and 1+2 (one bud plus two leaves) are common. I have also encountered 1+3 as an identified picking standard already, but whatever goes beyond, or better: below that in China falls among the huge mass of tea without further quality specification as regarding its picking standard. So, if there is no picking standard indicated with a Chinese tea, this will usually mean that this tea is either not of a picking standard worth mentioning, or – in some cases – that the picking standard is given through the type of tea in that case. There is such a “prescribed” picking standard for many Chinese teas. This can be defined by the tea itself – as is the case with a White Silver Needle Tea, for example – while for the types of tea a picking standard that is considered as optimal has established on the basis of centuries- to millennium-old experience. An example for this would be the 2+1 picking standard that is considered as optimal for most Chinese Oolong Teas.

Fuding White Silver Needle Tea, Fuding White Silver Needle – “Pure Buds“ picking standard

There is a similar tendency in China for the indication of the harvest season. To indicate the superior quality of spring pickings, these are often specifically labeled by adding the term “spring” to a tea’s name. As an example for this might serve our Wild Spring Long Jing Green Tea. Further, a more detailed specification of the picking period, such as prevernal or late spring picking or even the exact indication of the picking date  is frequently found on the datasheet of Chinese teas, though rather not, if the picking period is one that is considered as rather unfavorable. You will therefor rarely encounter a label indicating a picking in late summer or autumn, unless this would be considered as a particularly favorable harvesting period for a specific tea.

Characteristically pressed Long Jing green tea leaves: picking standard 1+ 2characteristially flat-pressed Spring Long Jing tea leaves (1+2 picking standard)

In China, crushing tea leaves has always been rather uncustomary, except for the production of green tea powder, the predecessor of Japanese Matcha Teas. Much rather, the tea leaves are always left as whole as possible here for all qualities considered as good – even when breaking up the tea leaves‘ surfaces with Oolong Tea Production, it is painstakingly ensured that the leaves stay in one piece. This way, unlike with Indian Broken, Fannings or Dust qualities (or with tea bags, in general), the applied picking standard can still easily be identified from the final dry tea leaf material.

In China, the broad spectrum of native tea cultivars and specific processing styles and methods that vary locally as well as based on tea cultivar and tea type respectively, plays a much greater role than in India or Japan, where tea portfolios are significantly lesser diversified (green teas in Japan, black teas in India) and tea processing therefore shows a more uniform pattern nationwide. So, in China a Bi Luo Chun is not just any green tea, but derives its identity both from the specific tea cultivar, from wich this tea is yielded, and the traditional characteristic method of processing that tea plant’s leaves to green tea. Whether a tea is roasted or steamed, whether manually in a wok or by machine, how long or short in terms of time, particularities with the tea leaves‘ wielding or fixation, individual processing features rooted in centuries-old family traditions, or the characteristic processing shape existing for each Chinese tea (rolled to needles, balls, curls, pressed, etc.), all this and more is information that in China will either be obvious for a tea or is added to any high grade tea’s “data sheet” on producer level and passed on through the trader instances up to the end consumer. Where such information is missing with Chinese teas, this often indicates that there was no information that would have been considered as sufficiently positive for justifying its expressive mentioning.

In addition, Chinese producers /traders love to use grading scales, where tea quality is rated with attributes such as “Premium“, “Superior“ or  “First Grade“, whereas the objective character of such grading is rather questionable. They might serve to grade a specified type of tea on a scale of better / less good, but without the definition of a reference point they fail to provide any hints to verifiable features or properties of the so-labeled tea. Where this is not the case, such terms are nothing but marketing instruments targeting the subjective human perception, but are rather useless as objective quality criteria.

Bi Luo Chun froms Yunnan, a long way from JiangsuBi Luo Chun – more than just „a green tea“

Japanese Picking Standards and Leaf Grades

Also in Japan – worldwide famous especially for its green teas – tea cultivation and tea processing have their own characteristic patterns, which are essentially influencing the objective criteria preferably used for the evaluation of tea quality. Green Tea in Japan is picked and/or processed by hand in rare cases only, such as for so-called „artisan teas“ or for top grades selected, picked and processed by the producer in person to run in tea competitions or similar. With machine pickings, the machine settings determine the picking standard. Though I have not seen a mathematical grading of a tea quality such as in cm, „finer“ cuts yielding lesser amounts of tea and resulting in a higher price are often labeled with additional attributes, such as “Diamond Leaf”, in order to indicate and emphasize their superior quality.

Kabuse Sencha (Kabusecha) Japanese Green TeaJapanese Kabusecha Green Tea – the cut determines the picking standard

An quality evaluation factor relevant for Japanese green teas only is the degree of shading. In Japan, many tea gardens are covered by nets during the main harvesting period in spring and early summer, so that only a controlled portion of sunlight reaches the tea plants. This is based on the idea of imitating natural light/shadow conditions as realistic as possible. The partial UV light withdrawal has the effect that tea plants increase their production of certain active and taste-relevant substances to drive into the young tea buds and leaves. In particular the degree of sweetness in the resulting “Kabusecha” Teas (part-shaded or half-shaded green tea, ca. 50% UV filtering for a period of up to 3 weeks) and “Gyokuro” Teas (fully shaded green tea, ca. 90% UV filtering for a period of up to 3 weeks) is increased by the shading. Though unshaded Japanese green teas (Sencha and Bancha Teas) can be of high quality grade just as well, degree and duration of the shading are still considered as quality criteria, in particular also when it comes to rating a Kabusecha or Gyokuro green tea within its respective category, i.e. not only in comparison to an unshaded tea.

Lon, whole needles for good tea leaf gradeGyokuro Wakana – long, whole needles for good tea leaf quality

Also in Japan, the most important criterion besides the quality of cut (picking standard) and the degree of shading for shaded teas (and/or as a delimitation to unshaded teas) is the harvesting period. In addition to the principal differentiation of spring, summer and autumn pickings, the exact harvesting period of teas is often specified in even more detail in Japan, as prevernal or late spring pickings, early and late summer harvests as well as the autumn pickings of some teas each show their very own individual taste profiles, due to which the exact picking time of a tea is of particular importance for traders and end customers and should therefore be identifiable. While the finest qualities of Sencha teas, Kabusecha teas and Gyokuro teas are basically limited to the picking months May, June, and July, there are Japanese teas especially in the Bancha category (such as for example “Spring Bancha” or “Kyobancha”), that are harvested either later or earlier in the year for their best standard.

Of course, there are also processing variations of tea in Japan, though a lot less than in China (mainly green tea, 80% Jabukita cultivar). Though the processing of black tea and Oolong tea only make a   tiny portion of the total Japanese tea production, there are still local and tea type-specific processing variations withing the green tea category, such as a prolonged steaming period (see “Fukamushicha” or “Sencha Fukamushi”) or an additional roasting process of the tea leaves after steaming (see “Hojicha”). Also, such processing particularities are often reflected in the naming of a tea or are indicated on a tea’s data sheet.

Kyobancha - processing variant of an autumn pickingKyobancha – processing variant of a prevernally harvested Bancha tea

Limitations of Leaf Grades and Picking Standards as Objective Evaluation Criteria for the Quality of Tea
As explained in detail in our article “The True Value of Tea – a Holistic or Qi Approach, the number of factors affecting the quality – or value – of a tea is in fact potentially infinite. Even quality evaluation systems based on   – and limited to – objective criteria such as leaf grades and picking standards have a tendency to focus on those quality-relevant factors that are considered as most important locally (on producer level). Another factor of distortion is that the exact pattern of the considered quality attributes and their correspondence in a tea’s taste can vary from year to year and from tea garden to tea garden. So, for example, a producer’s “First Flush“ (first spring harvest tea) TGFOP could be hilarious in one year and less hilarious in another. I’ve been watching this with our teas from north Thailand for five years now. They always come from the same producer, same tea garden, same picking standard, same processing, and we regularly buy stocks at the same time in spring, but still no tea has ever been exactly the same from one year to another. A third limitation of the validity of objective tea quality evaluation criteria and systems is the occurrence of exceptions. For example, there are teas in China, where one or more of the listed fundamental assumptions are not applicable, while completely different criteria are playing an important role. A good example for this is Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea, for which no buds at all are picked, while the age of the tea plant is an essential quality factor. Other teas, such as Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea or White Moonlight Tea can be picked proper only once a year for a short period, so that their picking period is already defined by this requirement.

Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea from ThailandDMS Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea – always 2+1, rolled to ball

Despite the limitations mentioned above, quality labeling based on objective criteria made on producer level and carried on through the stages of trade offer traders reliable aids of orientation with their procurement, offer creation and pricing, provide the end customer and tea drinker with valuable hints when shopping for and trying teas, and altogether make an essential contribution to the way a tea is perceived on the market. They allow tea lovers the targeted selection of a tea at the shop, the development of a set of expectations regarding this tea, and – finally at home and in the cup – a good chance for an at least approximate correspondence between those expectations and the actual experience of that tea.. Of course, with tea and all of its diversity, the seasonal and other variations, a certain potential for surprise will always remain a warranted element of each new buy and each new try, as how exactly and how well it will taste, once in our mouth, is something that often enough even the most detailed descriptions, most nuanced quality attributes and most sophisticated labeling systems won’t be able to tell.

Ancient Tree White Moonlight Tea - picking standard 1+1Ancient Tree White Moonlight Tea – picking standard 1+1