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Orange Pekoe is arguably the most popular and well known style of tea here in North America, but there's a lot of confusion about what it actually is. So many associate it with Red Rose, or extremely black and strong teas, but the reality is a lot more complex than that.
First of all, even though the history and etymology of the name is a bit murky, we can tell you this for sure:
No oranges were harmed in the making of your tea.
Orange Pekoe is not a flavoured tea, and has absolutely nothing to do with the fruit. Nor is the beverage supposed to come out an orange colour. In fact, the reason why it's called "Orange" is a question in tea making circles, but two arguments are generally accepted.
- In the 1600s, the Dutch formed the East India Company, importing goods from Asia to Europe. It is thought that after presenting their finest quality teas to the Dutch House of Orange - the Royal Family of Holland - the company added the "Orange" to the name in order to impart a certain respectability to their product. Essentially it seems it was an advertising ploy, as there's no evidence to suggest the Royal Family actually gave the tea their royal warrant.
- It is also thought that it may refer to the copper colour of a high quality tea leaf. This is produced when it's properly oxidised.
- Pekoe refers to the white downon the surface of the final leaf on a branch of the tea plant...the number of final buds used in the tea provides a higher grade of "Pekoe"! There are many grades of tea such as FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe), TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) etc.
In North America, "Orange Pekoe" has come to simply mean it's a basic black tea.
Black teas have all undergone a rigorous oxidation process to make their infusions a copper colour unlike green, white, oolong or pu-er which are each processed differently. Black teas can be from a particular country (China, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya...) or even a single estate which gives them a unique flavour profile such as a single estate Lover's Leap from Sri Lanka or a Margaret's Hope Darjeeling from India. Tea leaves from different regions are often blended for a particular flavour profile such as an English Breakfast or Tetley. They can also have a any number of flavours added to enhance them such as an Earl Grey or Cream of Avalon.
So the next time you ask for a simple Orange Pekoe, or plain tea, remember there are many options under this banner of Black teas and you might want to try something new!
So Black is the new Orange...truly.