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What exactly is Orange Pekoe?

Without a doubt, the most popular question I get asked at the market booth is
"Do you have any plain old orange pekoe tea?"

For Maritimers, 'orange pekoe' is considered the traditional tea of choice!

I grew up on Red Rose Orange Pekoe tea never questioning what those two words, orange pekoe, meant? It's one of those accepted terms that we don't even notice! At the market I offer 'specialty' teas which are not available in the tea bag format. But I do have orange pekoe teas. So what is orange pekoe?

First of all orange pekoe is not an orange-flavoured tea nor in any way associated with the orange fruit!

Orange Pekoe is a classification of black tea based upon the origin of the leaf. To be classified as pekoe, the tea must be composed purely of the new flushes - a flush being the leaf bud plucked with two youngest leaves. (Any other leaves produce teas of lower quality.)

So...the orange pekoe term refers to a grade of black tea based on the size of leaf and its location on the tea plant.

Would you like that term 'orange pekoe' to make more sense?

Well, pekoe is actually pronounced 'pek-ho' and is derived from a word for a special kind of Chinese tea, meaning white downy hair referring to the down-like hairs on the tea leaves that are the youngest and smallest on the plant.

And the 'orange' part? It is most likely that the Dutch East India Company had something to do with this description. The Dutch royal family was of the House of Orange. In the 1600s the company brought teas to Europe and the best of the black teas was reserved for the royal family. When it was introduced to the public, it became known as the 'orange' pekoe, associating it with royalty!

Thus, a grading system with the term orange pekoe (OP) began.

But if only it were that simple!

We have FOP (flowery orange pekoe) - tea made from the end bud and first leaf of each shoot.

GFOP (Golden flowery orange pekoe) FOP with golden tips

TGFOP (Tippy golden flowery orange pekoe) FOP with a large proportion of golden tips.

Should I stop here? Can you guess what the grade is of FTGFOP? How about SFTGFOP?

I mentioned early in the blog that I carry orange pekoes. There are flavoured orange pekoes which I do have, but I was referring especially to the common traditional tea that people in the Maritimes tend to think of as 'just plain tea'. The two that fit this description are Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Assam (India). They are TGFOPs! And both of these are from single organic estates, not blended with other leaves from estates in the area.

Most tea bags are made up of the fannings, the finest siftings of the processed OP teas. But that's another story!

I hope this has been helpful. Next time you drink your black tea, think about that beautiful downy leaf plucked by trained hands using the pads of the fingertips to give you that perfect cup you and I enjoy so much!





Karen Denbigh

Sadly, I have bought Royal Cup tea , in convenient bags, for too many years to count, My last order representative told me they had changed the name but not the product, and this simply, not true. The taste doesn’t compare and the ingredient label now says black tea as opposed to the former black Pekoe.
I am glad to have read your description of the difference. Thank you for clarifying this for me. I was pretty certain I was not crazy.
Karen Denbigh

Deb Fraser

I’ve been selling loose leaf and boxed teas for 40 years now in small town Ontario and your description was the best I’ve read on Orange pekoe.

Steve Ames

Back home in Ontario it’s easy to spot boxes of tea that advertise Orange Pekoe and often I could bring my own when vacationing in Florida. Today, down to my last 2 bags, I visited the grocery story and was presented with many popular brands stating only black tea or premium black tea. I was intrigued enough to google the term and immediately hit your excellent explanation. Thanks for the clarity.

Driver Chris

I am very grateful that you have removed my ignorance on this subject. I usually drink Earl Grey or Lady Grey teas. Twinings of course.

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