Grading of Darjeeling, like teas from China, can be a bit confusing. It is a bunch of acronyms that take a while getting used to. However, the grade is one among several factors that determine the quality of a tea.
Broadly, the grading is based upon the appearance of the made tea leaf – whether they are whole, broken or dust. Secondly, the presence of "tips" or leaf buds in the made tea is considered. For finer teas two leaves and a bud is an important configuration for plucking.
“Orange pekoe” – a rather common but still confusing term in the whole leaf tea world – is literally supposed to mean “bud and two leaves.” But in the grading itself OP is just a medium grade black tea that has no bud or tips.
Tips are supposed to indicate high quality and you recognize them by their silver appearance.
Here are interminable acronyms behind Darjeeling tea and what they stand for.
SFTGFOP1: Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Supposed to be top of the heap, where gardens make only very limited amounts of it. 1 is added for emphasis.
FTGFOP1: Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Generally the highest tea grade that a tea garden makes. One third of the tea needs to be made up of tips with finest leaves.
TGFOP1: Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Lots of tips, but not necessarily great leaf.
TGFBOP1: Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe. The tea has lot of tips but the leaf itself is not whole but broken into smaller bits.
In decreasing order of quality are listed
GFBOP: Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe.
FBOP: Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe.
BOP: Broken Orange Pekoe.
Fannings: Still smaller and lighter particles than Brokens, GOF (Golden Orange Fannings) or FOF or OF
Dust: The smallest particles that are like powder, PD (Pekoe Dust). This goes into making tea bags.
Ex and DJ
While shopping for Darjeeling first flush you might come across teas marked EX. What does that mean?
EX teas are those made just before the actual first flush. They are made out of leaves that are removed from bushes right towards the end of the winter dormancy, or just before the start of the first flush.
These are leaves yellowish in appearance. Tea planters do not want them mixed in the actual first flush. The removal of these "yellow" leaves makes way for the actual first flush leaves to come in.
In terms of quality, well-made EX teas aren't inferior to first flush. They largely share the same characteristics of a first flush - brisk and floral.
Once the EX category of tea is over, the DJs follow. DJs denote the actual first flush. (We are not sure what exactly the abbreviation EX stands for, but DJ is short for Darjeeling. In the auction houses where teas from various regions are on the floor, teas from Darjeeling can be easily distinguished by the appellation.)
Numbers that follow EX or DJ mark a batch. Batches are based on quantity and can vary. Normally, early DJs are considered good teas. Every year there is a big rush to grab the earliest ones. But even as the weather gets increasingly fickle, we have seen obession with early DJs o to waste. The flavors are more fuller in the later ones.
Having said that, please do note that teas produced produced towards the closing of the first flush season (the last weeks of April) are as a rule not as good as those made during March and early April.
A New Trend
The tradition of selling tea with the classification stenciled on to the chests and other tea packages is now on the wane. Especially for their top end products, tea gardens prefer to use names that are easier to brand and for consumers to remember. The new trend is in keeping with the needs of the specialty tea market. Therefore, instead of First Flush SFTGFOP with the invoice details as part of the name, it is either Arya's Ruby or Castleton's Moonlight or Makaibari's Imperial Silver Tips.