During my 15 years of tea lectures, exhibitions and shows where I’d present information about tea’s origins, types of teas and their unique properties, classics vs flavored, health benefits, steeping instructions, folk lore and traditions, inevitably at the end of the presentation someone would ask me if I sold “orange pekoe” tea. Aghhhhhhhhhhh!
After a big intake of air, and s-l-o-w-l-y regaining my composure, I’d say “Yes, I do. Would you like to purchase some?”
Orange pekoe tea!!
I have Estate teas, Chinese Keemuns and Yunnans, Kenyan teas, Darjeelings and Assams, teas from Sri Lanka and Nepal – all grades! I have English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Scottish Breakfast. I have blends with Assams and Darjeelings. I have blends with Keemuns and Assams. I have blends with Keemuns, Ceylons and Darjeelings, but, no, they want that “orange pekoe”.
I loved my customers and I appreciated each and every purchase. If they were interested, I really did try to give them a bit more information. A knowledgeable customer is going to make a more educated purchase (hopefully). But, how has this name, Orange Pekoe, become synonymous with good quality black tea (and, yes, despite my attempts to educate otherwise, some people do believe it is orange flavored).
Let’s start at the beginning. Tea originated in China. But it was the British industrialists who began to capitalize on the burgeoning tea market. In China, after the tea leaves are plucked, they are withered naturally, rolled and shaped by hand, wok fired and then sorted for size and quality.
Sorting Room in Chinese Factory.
This was far too slow and time consuming for the British industrialists. It wasn’t long after the British established plantations in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before these innovators created machines to do this work. Heated tables for withering were invented. Rolling machines were invented. But having machines do the work created another problem. The whole leaf was now broken into particles which required a process to ‘sort’ the different leaf sizes. This led to a process of using fine screens (much like window screens) of various sizes to separate out these particles by size. Now there was a need to have a standardized sorting or grading system, which would identify the leaf by its size. With every solution came another problem. A grading system had to be created.
The system began quite simply with a single letter representing the descriptive grade. Today, however, the grading system is much more complicated with all types of fancy add-ons. Again, this grading system is not for Chinese teas, but only for teas from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, etc. The letters are:
S = Special
F = Fancy
T = Tippy
G = Golden
F = Flowery
B = Broken
O = Orange
P = Pekoe
Oops, did I say “O = Orange and P = Pekoe”? Could it be that “orange pekoe” is a grade or size of tea, such as “tippy golden”? BINGO!
Let’s start at the top of the list, assuming SFTG was probably the best ‘grade’, wouldn’t BOP be the lowest? Hmmmm. This doesn’t necessarily mean this tea wouldn’t taste good. It does mean, however, that it was/is the lowest grade of tea.
All the letters seem to have a logical description for a leaf … “special”, “fancy”, “tippy”, “golden”, “flowery”. But “orange” and “pekoe” … where did these strange terms come from and what exactly do they mean?
A Chinese belief is that the tea was originally scented with orange blossoms, hence the use of the word “orange”. Plausible but highly unlikely. A more likely explanation is the term “orange” refers to the Dutch royal House of Orange-Nassau. Tea was first brought to Europe by the Dutch in 1675 and it is believed that the Dutch tea traders coined the term to imply a higher classification of tea, suitable for their nobility.
The term “pekoe” (which is pronounced peck-o and not peek-o) could be derived from the mispronunciation of the Chinese words for “white hair” which are “bai hao”. “Bai hao” refers to the downy-like white hairs on the leaf just below the bud, which would be the bai hao leaf or in pidgin English, the pekoe leaf.
The next size down from the pekoe leaf would be the orange leaf; then the souchong leaf. The more mature the leaf, the less flavor the tea would contain. As a result, a fine plucking would consist of the unopened bud, or tip, along with the next leaf or two leaves, resulting in “orange pekoe”. After processing and sorting the leaves, you might end up with BOP, FOP, GFOP, TGFOP, FTGFOP or even SFTGFOP. The more letters, the better the grade of tea.
All this can be quite fascinating or painfully boring to you. The real question is how did the average tea lover get to believe that ‘orange pekoe’ tea was the best tea on the market? For that we have to look at that Scottish marketing genius, Thomas Lipton.
It was 1850, and although still very expensive, Great Britain and the new Americas were now consumed by tea, and Thomas Johnston Lipton is born. The youngest of five children Thomas Lipton was born in Scotland to Irish immigrants. Although not an academic, Thomas learned his three R’s and looked to move into the business world for his future. After a few failed encounters, Thomas found a job he loved, working as a cabin boy. This love of water and ships would continue throughout his life. Saving his money, at the age of 15, Lipton booked steerage passage on a steamship bound for New York. A few directionless jobs later, Lipton managed to secure a position as assistant at a successful grocery store in New York City. He was fascinated by American advertising and marketing and by how different American grocery stores were compared to the British stores.
Back in Glasgow, Thomas’ parents had opened a small grocery shop. After three years in NYC, at the age of 18, Thomas now returned to Glasgow to work in his parent’s shop. It didn’t last long because he wanted to replicate the NYC grocery store he had worked in. Two years later, Lipton opened his own store.
Preferring to deal direct with the producers of the food, and not the middlemen, Lipton was soon buying direct from farmers. His Americanized concept along with eliminating the middleman was successful. It wasn’t long before he had opened many more grocery stores and with the opening of every new store, Lipton would create outrageous advertising campaigns. One Christmas Lipton announced that his cheese would contain sovereigns (about 20 shillings or half a one pound note) and half sovereigns. When the cheese went on sale, within two hours every last piece of cheese was sold. These cheeses became so large and so much a part of Lipton’s annual Christmas displays that the manager of Lipton’s Nottingham shop hired an elephant to transport the cheese through the town.
Vintage advertisement for Lipton Ceylon Tea.
With over 300 stores, Thomas now decided to turn his attention to tea. Continuing with his theory of cutting out the middleman, Lipton decided to visit plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and learn the process himself. This was the time when the coffee blight struck the coffee plantations in Ceylon and the coffee crops were wiped out. Within a short period of time, Lipton scooped up five defunct coffee plantations and created tea gardens …. thus becoming the grower, the producer, the middleman, the wholesaler and the retailer!
Lipton was masterful, he made his tea affordable to everyone. He did not stop with just selling his tea in his own shops, Lipton distributed his tea everywhere, exhibiting Lipton Teas at the London and Paris world fairs, continuing his relationship with American grocers, and opening corporate offices in Hoboken, NJ.
“Direct from the tea garden to the tea pot.” Who wouldn’t want the freshest tea possible? Soon the famous goatee and captain’s hat became associated with good quality tea and was found in cupboards all around the World. And what could he call his tea to make it seem as if it was the best quality available ….. how about calling it “ORANGE PEKOE”.
References: Liquid Jade by Beatrice Hohenegger, Mitchell Library, Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, Wikipedia.
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