What Makes Orthodox Tea Special?

An Introduction to Whole Leaf Tea Grades

rooibos loose leaf tea
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Some of the best loose-leaf teas you will find are known as orthodox tea. These high-quality teas are processed by hand and carefully graded to ensure the best tea leaves are packaged together. It's a complicated process that is filled with quality control issues and you can use it to buy the best grades of tea.

What is Orthodox Tea?

Orthodox tea refers to either hand-processed tea or tea that is rolled with machinery in a manner that mimics hand-rolling.

Most specialty tea is made with orthodox production methods. All whole-leaf tea is made with orthodox production methods.

You might also notice these teas under the label 'handmade tea,' 'hand-processed tea,' or 'rolled tea.'

Orthodox teas go through a complex system:

  • Withering - The leaves are spread out for 14-20 hours to allow the moisture to evaporate.
  • Rolling - Rotating and pressing the leaves to release their inherit chemicals and prepare for oxidation.
  • Oxidation - The leaves spend 2-4 hours in a controlled environment, allowing the air to react with the chemicals. During this process, the leaves turn darker.
  • Firing - A heater is used to stop oxidation and dry the leaves before they are sorted for grading.

The opposite of orthodox tea is CTC tea (Crush, Tear, Chop), which is machine-processed in a way that chops the leaves into uniformly-sized bits that are typically used for low-grade teabags.

 

Choosing Orthodox vs.CTC Teas

Orthodox tea is generally known for being brisk, bright, and multi-layered. They are thought to be more nuanced and complex than CTC teas. Orthodox teas are perfect for enjoying on their own with a hint of lemon or a sweetener. Many Ceylon teas are orthodox Teas.​

CTC teas, on the other hand, are stronger and have a tendency to include bitter notes.

These teas are often preferred to be mixed with milk or other additives to counteract the bitterness. The milk teas famously made with Assam tea are a perfect example and the most popular has to be masala chai.

Grades of Orthodox Teas

Orthodox teas are graded based on the region, leaf twist, manufacturing methods, and (sometimes) the timing of the pluck (when they were harvested or the 'flush'). There's a complex system associated with grading teas and the abbreviations have common elements.

If you don't see the word 'orthodox' on a tea label, but notice one of these, then you're likely seeing a whole leaf, orthodox tea. The list is ordered from highest to lowest quality.

  • FOP - Flowery Orange Pekoe. Only the two best tea leaf tips are used. It's a specialty of India.
  • GFOP - Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. A golden color is found on the tips of these leaves.
  • FTGFOP - Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Higher quality than TGFOP but with more tips than FOP.
  • TGFOP - Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. FOP with more tips.
  • OP - Orange Pekoe. A tightly rolled, wiry leaf picked later in the year than FOP.
  • S - Souchong. Used for smokey Chinese teas with twisted leaves from the bottom of the tea plant.

    There are further tea grades that refer to 'broken leaf' teas. These include B (broken), P (Pekoe), F (fannings), and D (dust). These are primarily used with CTC teas.

    The grading primarily refers to black teas. Green and oolong teas typically are not graded.

    Tip: Contrary to common belief, 'orange pekoe' refers to the size of a tea leaf rather than a specific type of tea. These leaves are typically young.