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What is orange pekoe tea?

Blue Tile of Tea

Have you ever heard of Orange Pekoe tea and wondered, "What is Orange Pekoe tea, and why is it orange?"

Brace yourself for a delightful dive into the tea history. We're about to wade through the comforting aromas of this famous tea staple and clear up one common misconception: no, orange pekoe doesn't contain oranges!

The reason I write this page today is because, recently I had the pleasure of attending the lovely High Tea at The Marion in Canberra. The tea was delightful, the food was scrumptious, the view was incredible and the service was second to none... with the exception of the knowledge of the server. I overheard a lively group of women who appeared to be celebrating a Hen's Party for a bride-to-be. One gal asked the server, "does Orange Pekoe have orange in it?"

I smiled a little, because this is an obvious question for anyone who doesn't know about tea but... for a tea establishment to not know the answer was a little disconcerting. I overheard the server say that he will go find out and come back. When he did, he just said, "no, there's no orange in Orange Pekoe" without explaining to her what it was all about...

So, I pondered the topic for a while, thinking that perhaps my readers (who are already knowledgable tea drinkers!) will find such an article patronising... However, I then thought about all the innocent young tea drinkers who don't know much about history, and decided that I ought to write it. So here it goes! (Correct me if you think I've made any errors!)

so... are there any oranges?

Orange Pekoe ProhibitionNo oranges here!

Let's start peeling back the layers. The term "Orange Pekoe" is a "categorisation" or "grade" of black teas. Contrary to what the name may suggest, it has nothing to do with a fruity flavour of orange. Interestingly, the "Pekoe" or "Pak-Ho" actually refers to a type of tea leaf - the young, tender unopened bud at the tip of a tea branch.

The term Pekoe originates from the Chinese word, "Bai Hao" which translates to "white hairs" or "white down" – referring to the delicate white hairs on these young leaves. Over time, it became anglicised to 'Pekoe'. Therefore, for the "Pekoe" in "Orange Pekoe", just think delicate buds and premium tea leaves, and not citrus fruits!

Getting to the "orange" part, there are a few conjectures about its origin. Some say it was an association with the Dutch royal House of Orange-Nassau. As the Dutch played a significant role in the global tea trade, they could have added "Orange" as a marker of quality.

Another theory suggests that it could be referring to the colour of the tea once it's oxidised or to the copper colour of the high-quality tea leaves before they are fully dried. Either way, the consensus is that "Orange" isn't indicative of an extra fruit ingredient.

So in essence, Orange Pekoe is a grade of tea leaf, not a flavoured tea variety. It represents some of the finest leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant, which have been carefully plucked just as the buds are about to bloom.

View the Orange Pekoe varieties we have in store!

Who drinks Orange Pekoe tea?

Terracotta Tea ManEven terracotta sculptures need tea!

I rather liked this hunky-looking AI-generated image of a terracotta man drinking tea however, Orange Pekoe tea is actually enjoyed by all kinds of people - not just hunky statues!

It's frequently consumed as an everyday tea, versatile enough to be enjoyed straight up or to serve as the base for flavours like Earl Grey and English Breakfast.

Its popularity over time is thanks to the tea's quality and flavour. An Orange Pekoe tea has a unique taste: full-bodied, rich, and aromatic. It's robust without being overpowering, making it a great choice for those seeking to elevate their daily tea ritual.

Due to a rise in popularity of afternoon "high tea" services, it's becoming even more essential to understand the pedigree of our cup of bliss. Knowledgeable tea enthusiasts can reveal a world of flavour, origin stories, and quality indicators hidden behind complex-sounding names like Orange Pekoe.

but, what IS orange pekoe tea? where is it grown?

Terracotta Tea LadyAnother AI-generated gorgeous terracotta tea drinker

Well, in a nutshell it's a very high quality Black Tea, of no particular origin but bearing in mind that much of the black tea we drink is grown in Sri Lanka, India and China.

Orange Pekoe refers to the whole, unbroken leaves. Within this grade, there are further subdivisions based on leaf size. For instance, Broken Leaf Orange Pekoe is smaller leaves that have broken during handling, often intentionally.

In terms of quality, larger leaf grades like Orange Pekoe yield a lighter liquor and are more expensive than smaller, broken grades. Smaller leaf grades use terms like Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) or Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP), which associate smaller, broken leaves and leaf tips, with diverse flavour experiences. (I'll write an article about these classifications another time. One of my customers refers to her favourite tea order as her FIGGY-FOP whenever she orders it. Bless!)

Even during these recession times, the pursuit of high-quality, sustainably sourced tea products remains strong among tea lovers. When it comes to tea - especially ones with exotic names like 'Orange Pekoe', understanding its history, grading, and what it means for your palate, can make a world of difference.

It's safe to say, it's the thrill of the tea journey, as much as  enjoying the tea itself!

Orange pekoe? black tea?

Lady Drinking Tea Blue Tile

Interestingly, in parts of the world where the term "orange pekoe" isn't used, it's simply referred to as "black tea", regardless of the leaf grade. This difference in naming conventions underscores how regional preferences and traditions can shape tea consumption and labelling.

Awareness around this curiously named tea is crucial for those of us passionate about understanding what we consume. Consequently, we can make more informed purchasing decisions aligned to our preference for strength, body, and flavor.

An understanding of the term "Orange Pekoe" can also offer a gateway into understanding the wider, complex world of tea grading. This knowledge enables you to comprehend the labour and skill that goes into the tea you enjoy daily.

The practice of categorising tea into grades like 'Orange Pekoe' helps to establish standards of quality, taste, and size. This ensures that you, as a consumer, are getting a consistent product to steep.

So the next time you spot an 'Orange Pekoe' on the tea menu, remember to appreciate the careful selection and handling of those lovely whole tea leaves that make your tea experience so special. After all, part of the charm in being a tea lover is exploring the subtle nuances that each variety offers. You might even be able to educate the server at your table on what constitutes an Orange Pekoe tea! [wink!]

And now, without the cloud of ambiguity, you can truly savour the taste and enjoy the story that every cup of Orange Pekoe tea holds. Here's to the many delightful tea discoveries still awaiting you! Whatever your questions, never hesitate to dive a little deeper into the flavourful world of tea.

Happy sipping!

24 February 2024

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