Of course you recognize this iconic package:
—and orange pekoe almost means Lipton!
But what does that “orange pekoe” really mean?
Perhaps surprising to many of us, it has nothing to do with the flavor or the type of tea, and can be viewed with multiple lenses.
Position of leaf on plant
At the top of a branch is, of course, the tip, or bud, as shown here in this tea plant in a tea garden in Japan.
Going down from the tip:
- 1st leaf = orange pekoe
- 2nd leaf = pekoe
- 3rd leaf = pekoe-souchong
- 4th leaf = souchong
- 5th leaf = congou
Physical description of leaf
On a tea plant, the buds as well as the underside of the youngest leaves are covered with fine silvery-white hairs. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pekoe” means “white down” (Chinese, Amoy dialect, pek = white, ho = down).
When buds and young tea leaves are plucked and simply withered and dried, ensuring that the cell walls are not broken and the leaves do not oxidize, the white down is retained—and so these teas are called white teas.
Pekoes, however, are not white teas, even though they might include buds along with the young leaves; they are processed differently and so their leaves do not have the fluffiness and the silvery-white color of white tea. Most pekoes are processed to be black teas, although there can be green orange pekoes (an example is Rwanda Rukeri OP).
Grade of tea
The buds and tender first leaves, pekoe, are prized for tea, partly because they have high levels of inherent leaf properties needed for quality (for instance, amino acids, which are key to tea’s flavor and aroma).
There are multiple grading systems used in the tea world. China uses a system based on the style, shape, and production process of the tea leaves.
Other tea producers, such as those in India and Sri Lanka, for example, use terms like “tippy” and “flowery,” meaning there are buds in the tea, with a grading range from OP (orange pekoe) to SFTGFOP (special finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe).
Shown here are three Ceylon teas: a flowery orange pekoe, an orange pekoe, and a pekoe.
You can see that although the two orange pekoes shown here consist of long needle-shaped leaves, the pekoe example has a smaller leaf size, even more evident after brewing, demonstrating the possibilities of pekoe tea.
Pekoe tea can still vary greatly in quality. Factors such as where and how it was grown along with how it was processed impact tea quality. A typical teabag contains the lowest grades of orange pekoe, either fannings or dust, the tiny bits of tea left over from tea production.
Remember, “pekoe” refers to the leaf used and not the end result of tea production. As K. Anderson (1982:89) put it, the term “orange pekoe”
bears the same relation to the taste of tea as loaf size does to the taste of bread.
No one is positive why the “orange” came into orange pekoe, but there are several options.
China is known for its scented teas. After tea leaves are oxidized, they remain pliable and moist. In this softened state, they can easily absorb the fragrance and flavor of flowers, fruit, and even milk. Tea masters skillfully regulate how much flavor the tea leaves pick up—by layering tea leaves with blossoms, or by steaming the leaves with blossoms, fruit juice, or milk. Those blossoms could be orange.
Alternately, when brewed, orange pekoe does have an orange tinge, as seen here (from left to right: Uva Highlands, Newara Eliya, Ratnapura).
However, most agree that “orange” more likely refers to the Netherlands’ House of Orange.
Founded by Willem I, Prince of Orange, in the 1500s, the House of Orange–Nassau rose to power due to military success and political leadership, but their savvy use of material culture reinforced their assertion to the right to rule.
Oranges and the color orange figured in artwork and clothing—orange shoots symbolized children, fruit and flowers, fertility, for example.
Orangeries and food products (orange marmalade, candied orange, orange liqueur) were strategically used. Even the naturally multicolored carrots were propagated for the orange hue in the 1600s.
The House of Orange–Nassau and the Dutch East India Company
developed a mutually beneficial relationship that enabled the company to negotiate as a nation with others, . . . [which] raised the status of the House at home and abroad. (Broomhall and Van Gent 2016:131)
That status developed into trade supremacy, including over tea and porcelain. Adding “orange” to “pekoe” could’ve been a marketing strategy by the Dutch East India Company—or yet another way for the House of Orange–Nassau to bring “orange” to the fore.
So here we are, centuries later, and that tea is still called orange pekoe, a nod to tradition.
–Dynastic Colonialism, by S. Broomhall and J. Van Gent, Routledge, London, 2016.
–”Pekoe,” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.
–The Pocket Guide to Coffees and Teas, by Kenneth Anderson, Perigee Books, New York, 1982.
Teas pictured are available from TeaHaus.