This post has been contributed by tea sommelier, Domini Hogg. Follow this link for her first post on tea.
This is a question I am frequently asked. I can only assume that the confusion arises from the use of Orange Pekoe as a way of marketing tea as a more premium product often in connection with Ceylon teas. The reality of it is, however, that all teas are a form of Orange Pekoe and Ceylon as much as any.
The word Pekoe comes from the Cantonese pronunciation of 白毫 (Mandarin: Baihao) meaning tea leaf, literally “fine white hair”. While the tea leaf is still an unfurled bud, it protects itself with an outer layer of fine white hair typically seen in very high grade tea, especially white tea like Silver Needles that uses only the unopened buds.
Orange comes rather obscurely from the name of the Dutch royal family since it was the Dutch who first brought tea to Europe. Consequently, Orange Pekoe simply means tea leaf. It is distinguished, however, from Broken Orange Pekoe which is used in lower grade tea bags.
When the British started growing tea in India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), they used Orange Pekoe as the basis for their tea grading system. The system reaches the heady heights of SFTGFOP1/2! This is the very highest grade of leaf and stands for ‘Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe’.
Ceylon, by contrast, is simply the name for any tea produced in Sri Lanka.
Recently I visited a tea garden in the South West of India, which was growing teas in a very similar way to Sri Lanka. Parisons Tea Estate was a beautiful and extensive estate nestled in the luscious Western Ghats, the foothills of the Nilgiri mountains. The estate owner had decided to create his own hybrid plant which combined the virtues of both the Chinese tea plant (camellia sinensis sinensis) and the North Indian variety (camellia sinensis assamica). The Chinese plant was selected for its hardy roots and longevity, while the Assamica was selected for its high yield. Ceylon teas from Sri Lanka would be produced from similar hybrids.
So next time you see a packet with Orange Pekoe written on it, you won’t be taken in by their exotic marketing techniques.