Black Tea Leaf Grades: SFTGFOP – what does it actually mean?

This article is about the quality classification of black tea, which is made according to the leaf size:

-Leaf Tea

These four categories are further divided by subdivisions, which are described in the detailed section.

The four Leaf Sizes for Black Tea

Unlike Chinese teas, in the British-influenced tea growing areas leaf-grade divisions are common. These classifications give at least partial information about the tea quality: The finer the tea, the lower its quality.

The leaf grades are divided as follows:

Leaf tea  is the most fully preserved tea, and the highest quality level. The designation is somewhat misleading, as it contains only whole leaves up to a certain size. If the leaves are to big, they are cut up.

Broken is the next size, which no longer contains whole leaves, but only broken ones, as the name suggests..

Fannings contains finer components than Broken.

Dust is the finest screening, and the simplest quality.

Fannings and Dust are mainly offered in tea bags. On tea plantations, this simple tea is also distributed loose (not in tea bags) to the employees, and is also sold in this form. Masala Chai spiced tea is often made from it in India.

Fannings and Dust are similar to the Japanese crumb tea "Konacha". What is true for Konacha also applies to the finest sieving of black tea: Good initial tea produces good fannings and dust, even if the quality is lower than that of the leaf tea from the same production.

The individual sheet sizes just described are subdivided into further quality levels, which are composed of partly long letter combinations. However, this terminology is not really difficult to understand.

The highest quality level SFTGFOP is selected for the explanation:

The last two letters OP or Orange Pekoe are the key words. Because they are so important, they are explained in detail.


Orange has three common ways of explaining the name. None of them is secure!

-The first explanation says that the term comes from flavouring with oranges or orange blossoms. It is quite unlikely, even if the name "Orange" suggests the hypothesis.

-The second explanation derives its origin from the Dutch royal family "Oranje". It were Dutchmen who first brought tea by sea to their home country and thus to Western Europe.* Here it is also appreciated by the royal house of Oranje, which was presumably used by business-minded Dutch merchants to promote tea with the royal "Oranje". The British later adopted the name, which in English means "Orange".

-The third possibility assumes that the name is derived from the colour of the tea leaves.

Maybe it's the orange-golden leaf tips, that shine out of the rather black tea.

If you look at some black teas, this last explanation can be considered plausible.

Golden Monkey black Tea with golden tips


Pekoe is definitely from the Chinese, but there are two different statements from which it was derived:

The first possibility says that the original word in English means "white hair". In Chinese the word is pronounced "Pak-Ho", which the British then anglicised to Pekoe.

In the second case, the word in English means "white flower". In Chinese it is spoken "Bai Hao" or "Ba Hwa". The British developed some very imaginative verbal hornings, which could have led them to Pekoe.

When speaking of Pekoe in Chinese green teas, the leaf buds are covered with white hair.

The original Chinese meaning no longer has any real reference to black tea. It is just a traditional quality label.

The following grade descriptions vary slightly depending on the source. In addition, they differ in some cases in the different growing areas. The following is therefore only a possible description.

One thing in common is that the quality should increase with the increasing number of letters.

SFTGFOP is now explained letter by letter, starting from the back:

P = Pekoe

O = Orange

F = Flowery 

G = Golden

T = Tippy (leaf tips)

F = Finest 

S = Special 

Detailed Description:

OP is often used for tea from Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Usually a pure leaf tea.

FOP is the simplest tea quality from India. Flowery means floral. In addition to the two youngest leaves, here also the leaf bud (not to be confused with flower bud) is picked.

Now it continues with the front letters:

FTG: If these three letters are preselected, it is a tea with the finest (F) leaf tips (T). These leaf tips do not contain as many polyphenols as the rest of the leaf. During the oxidation/fermentation, polyphenols are converted into colouring agents that give the black tea its dark colour. The tips of the leaves with their low polyphenol content thus remain brighter, which could then be called golden (G).

SFTG: the advanced special (S) in the sense of extraordinary is the last possibility for an increase and is intended to illustrate an even better quality.

Good FTGFOP teas are often better than average SFTGOP.

B = Broken
If this letter appears in the name, it is a tea with broken leaves.

A few shortcuts, for example:

BOP = Broken (B) Orange Pekoe
F BOP = Flowey (F) Broken Orange Pekoe
GF BOP = Golden (G) Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
TGF BOP = Tippy (T) Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe

The two finest sieves are abbreviated as follows:

F = Fannings
D = Dust

These teas are available almost exclusively in tea bags, and the quality levels should therefore not be explained in detail.

* By land tea had already reached Russia, and thus also Eastern Europe, some time earlier, according to some sources.