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What’s With the Alphabet Soup?

July 01, 2019


It is apparent that my scanty tea knowledge qualifies me as an “enthusiast.”  To borrow the novice’s cliché from the art world, “I don’t know much about tea, but I know what I like.”  That would be black, preferably Assam, and primarily whole leaf.

My childhood in a lumber mill town in southwest Washington State is replete with memories of making tea for the neighbor lady, Mary.  The tea was Red Rose (many a conflict over the ceramic collectible figurine free in every box) with the enigmatic phrase “orange Pekoe” prominently displayed on the box.  As soon as I could sound out “orange Pekoe,” I repeated it over and over until both brain and tongue were doing linguistic somersaults. It did not make sense, but had a delicious way of skipping off the tongue.

A few years later, as an annoying pre-teen, I found the term a delightful way of dissing my neighborhood nemesis, Nelly Mason*.  Nelly was four years older, “fast”, and bullied me relentlessly. It was nothing short of a stroke of genius that when she decided in 1962 to get a sexy suntan the fast way — by liberally anointing herself with a mixture of iodine and baby oil — I promptly called her “Orange Pekoe” as she made her dramatic new tan entrance at a rather large gathering of teens and tweens at the local swimming hole.  Although the notion of a text message was almost 50 years in the future, that taunt traveled and gained traction in a New York minute. It stuck, too. I saw Nelly at an all-school reunion two summers ago, and her nametag read “Pekoe.”

But I digress.

My beloved black tea is often labeled with alphabet soup.  When I first observed “SFTGFOP” on a bag of tea, I was stymied.  I tried to make up a sentence, “Some Folks Think Good Fishing On Peninsula,” but it did not make sense.  Finally, I googled it and learned that the real translation is Special Fancy Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe.  Although the string does contain my beloved Orange Pekoe, it still doesn’t make much sense to a layperson enthusiast.

The good news is that World Tea News has a guide for how these initials are shorthand for the tea grower, seller, and buyer; informing instantly as to the characteristics of the tea.  And, just in case I graduate one day from “enthusiast” to full Tea Geek, I’ve created a key and pinned it to the wall next to my computer.

*of course it isn’t.

Photo “Kitabi tea grades” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Colleen Taugher and is being posted unaltered (source)

Photos “Lochan Tea Sample” and “Hand-Written List” were provided and copyright held by author

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