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What Exactly Is Orange Pekoe Tea?

We get quite a few visitors to The Tea Wagon that ask us for Orange Pekoe tea. Orange Pekoe is a very familiar kind of tea because it's the type used in a lot of black teas from supermarket tea suppliers.

Orange Pekoe is not orange-flavoured tea or a specific kind of blend. It is actually a tea classification. Orange Pekoe tea contains new flush tea leaves only, which are the youngest and tenderest leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Each grade of Pekoe tea refers to the size and appearance of young leaves picked with the bud from the plant, usually in teas from Sri Lanka or India. The highest grade of Pekoe tea includes only the bud and must be picked by hand to avoid bruising. 

In general, people in North America use the term 'Orange Pekoe' to refer to a generic black tea. The type of tea sold in bags in the grocery store is sometimes Broken Orange Pekoe, which just means that the Orange Pekoe tea has been broken into smaller pieces for faster steeping and easier packaging. 

tea leaf sizes for orange pekoe grade

The highest quality tea leaves are the smallest ones on the right.
Arne Hückelheim [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

So why is it called Orange Pekoe?

The general consensus is that this grade of tea was associated with the Dutch royal family, the Orange-Nassaus. England had an importation tax at the time and so the Dutch imported and sold more tea than anyone else in the 18th century. The highest quality Pekoe teas were probably saved for the royal family. It is also suggested that it was the Dutch that first labelled this tea and so added the name of their royal family - The House of Orange - to put their own mark on Orange Pekoe and to capitalize on the royal family for marketing purposes.

The word "pekoe" is thought to refer to an old Chinese word for a tea known as "white down/hair", like those little hairs seen on the newest leaves on the Camellia sinensis plant. 

Other Grades of Orange Pekoe

Wikipedia has a list of all of the different classes of Orange Pekoe tea if you're interested in getting into the real nitty-gritty.

Examples of Orange Pekoe Tea

The fabulously fruity Strawberry Rhubarb and the black tea used in our Lavender Earl Grey are both Orange Pekoe grade.

Our Canadian Breakfast blend is classed as Flowery Orange Pekoe. This means that the tea is Orange Pekoe grade with large leaves from the second or third flush instead of the first flush. 

Our delicious Strawberry Rhubarb blend, which is Orange Pekoe grade.

In the supermarket, you'll see brands like Twinings and Tetley selling Orange Pekoe tea. These tea bags contain Broken Orange Pekoe, or Orange Pekoe dust or fannings (small pieces of tea left over from the processing of full leaf teas). If you're used to drinking loose leaf tea and switch to pre-packaged tea bags, you may be surprised at how fast bagged teas steep. This is due to the small pieces within the bags that allow for a much faster brewing time than loose leaf.

Have a burning tea question? Leave it in the comments below and we'll answer it in our next blog post or get back to you with an answer!