The worldwide popularity of black tea has made it one of the most diverse tea types, with huge range in both flavor and quality. While terroir and regional crafting styles create unique flavor profiles, each farm typically produces several different grades of their own specialty style. This can be confusing, since the terms used for each grade can vary between regions and tea types.
In India, Sri Lanka, and other tea industries founded by the British Empire, there is a complex system of abbreviations to describe the quality of any given tea. But these esoteric letter codes are often used inconsistently, and are not recognized by most Chinese tea producers. Instead of using these coded labels, it is easier to judge the quality of any given tea by looking at the leaves directly.
Whole, unbroken leaves are the highest grade of any tea, including black teas. Usually, whole leaves are further categorized based on the harvest date of the tea, with early spring harvests considered the best of the best, while teas harvested later in the summer months are less prized. This is because the young buds that grow in the spring have more natural sugars than mature leaves plucked later in the season, and therefore are less likely to be bitter in flavor.
Though this criteria does not apply equally to every style of black tea, it is valued in teas from both China and India, where young leaves are called “pekoe” or “orange pekoe” and teas including many buds are called “tippy”.
Broken leaf teas can be left over from whole leaf production, after the highest grade leaves are sorted out. Or, especially in the case of black teas, the leaves may be chopped or broken on purpose to speed up the oxidation process. Broken pieces of leaf expose more surface area and release astringent tannins more quickly.
As with whole leaves, broken leaf teas can be made with young buds, mature leaves, or a mixture of both, resulting in varying levels of bitterness. Dry leaves with a golden color are made from younger buds, while a dark black color indicates a later harvest. The younger golden leaves indicate a tea with more natural sweetness, but broken leaf teas are more commonly made from large, bitter, late harvest leaves.
Fannings and Dust
These are the smallest particles of processed tea leaves, used mainly in tea bags due to their extremely small size. To ensure that only whole leaves are used in the highest grade teas, the smallest pieces of broken leaf are sifted from higher quality batches. For mass production, leaves from late-season harvests may also be crushed.
Even from smaller farms that focus on high quality production, the greatest quantity of fannings and dust will come from large harvests of mature leaves in the summer. This means that they typically have more bitterness and astringency, which are drawn out very quickly from such small pieces of leaf. Fannings and dust are often blended with spices or herbs or prepared with milk and sugar, as with most mass-produced tea bags.
Each of these categories can be further subdivided and graded, but this easy visual distinction in leaf size is universal across regions, and can give you a good idea of the general quality of any black tea.
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