Tea 101: Orange Pekoe
Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world; bested only by water. How much consideration have you given the tea served at your coffee shop or drive thru?
All tea comes from a single plant, the Camellia Sinensis. An evergreen bush, tea is grown predominantly in Southeastern Asia. Although scientists believe Yunnan Province in China to be the birthplace of the tea plant, both Indian and Chinese mythology stake legendary claims to its discovery.
Before the advent of tea cultivation, two genera of Camellia Sinensis thrived in the wild. The “China bush” is at home on the foggy mountainsides of Southwestern China and produces a small, tender leaf during a short growing period. Separated from China by the Himalayan Mountains, the “Assam bush” prefers the jungle-like conditions of Northeastern India and yields a large, broad leaf that can be picked year-round.
Tea Leaf Quality
When describing the size of tea leaves and their origin, the term Orange Pekoe is used. This term has nothing to do with the taste of orange. Rather, Orange refers to the Dutch noble House of Orange-Nassau, which brought tea to Europe during the 18th century. Pekoe refers to the top bud of the tea plant. To be classified as Orange Pekoe, the tea must be composed purely of the top two leaves and bud of the tea plant.
After being picked, tea leaves are placed in meshes to sort out their sizes. Fuller leaves stay in the top meshes while broken or crushed leaves (“Broken Orange Pekoe”) fall to the bottom. The tiny remnants of the sorting and/or crushing process result in fannings (because they are “fanned” away) or dust (swept from the bottom). Because the surface area of these particles are smaller, tannin (natural in tea) is released quicker (after 1-2 minutes) often resulting in a bitter or astringent taste. A larger leaf has a broader surface area and thereby can be steeped longer before tannin is released (3-5 minutes). This results in a fuller, smooth flavor.