We're as passionate about fine, sumptuous teas as we are about artisan coffee, selecting only the most consistently impeccable crops and pungent, flavorful leaves. These exacting standards extend from fine plucking in the field to traditional processing by highly skilled, quality-conscious producers. Follow the journey our leaves take from growing to grading, and find out how our dedication to exquisite tea translates to your cup.
Quality Starts in the Field
All the world’s teas come from a single tea plant — camellia sinensis. Yet, variances in growing and picking methods make selectivity essential to providing only the finest leaves for your brew. The tea plant thrives in humid climates, tropical and sub-tropical, with plenty of rain. It favors well-drained fields, a high-acidity sandy loam, and the cool evening temperatures that slow the leaves’ growth and enhance their flavors.
There are two sub-species, the China type and Assam type, both with dozens of varietals created by generations of seed propagation and cloning. Grown not only in China, but also Taiwan, Japan, and parts of Darjeeling, the China type has smaller leaves and a softer flavor. The indigenous Assam type — grown in India, Sri Lanka, and the rest of the tea-producing world — is known for larger leaves with a stronger taste.
The way leaves are picked further defines their flavor. Some teas are coarse plucked, which means three or four leaves are picked with the bud for a higher yield, but lower-quality lot. Peet's teas are selected by hand from only the new growth — two leaves and a bud — in a more precise, quality-driven process known as fine plucking.
Each bush produces anywhere from three to twelve pluckings per year, but the characteristics of the leaves vary dramatically with the seasons. So even though a tea estate might produce dozens of tea lots, it's likely that only a handful will be of the highest quality — those are the lots we buy.
Making Tea Is About Tradition
Raw, freshly picked leaves are processed in several ways, each finishing into a different type of tea: black, green, oolong, white or pu-erh. We offer them all, working closely with conscientious partners whose time-honored practices exemplify selectivity and accentuate each type of tea's signature flavors.
Leaves designated for black tea begin by withering on racks for 8 to 24 hours, so the water content evaporates and they become soft and pliable. The green leaves are then twisted and curled in a rolling machine with rotating brass plates to release the enzymes that define their flavor, without allowing too much pressure or heat to do them harm.
After rolling, the leaves are left out to oxidize for two to three hours in a step inaccurately called fermentation. The exposure of leaf enzymes to air, not a conversion of sugars to alcohol, is what imparts the flavor and color of black tea. Once fully "fermented," the leaves are fired in a drying chamber for about 20 minutes to dry, curtail further oxidation, and lock in their flavor.
There is no withering stage for green tea. Instead, the freshly plucked leaves are immediately de-enzymed using either the dry heat process favored in China or the steam method common in Japan. Either way, it takes less than a minute to soften the leaves and neutralize their enzymes, preventing the color or flavor of black tea from developing when they're rolled.
Although many green teas use the same rolling machinery as black tea, the finest lots are usually rolled entirely by hand while being heated. This style not only shapes the leaves' visual character — flat-leaf, round, curly — it also shapes their flavor. The rolled green tea is then finished in a conventional dryer or pan-fired until it's fully dry.
The most time-consuming and difficult teas to produce, oolongs rely on delicate processing that falls somewhere between the black tea and green tea methods. Ironically, even the highest-quality oolongs are usually coarse-plucked, which gives them the added distinction of having consistently large, whole leaves.
Fresh leaves are withered for about eight hours — a much shorter period than black tea. What follows is a lengthy series of light rollings and gentle firings. The leaves are tumbled in bamboo baskets or rolled under hand pressure, bruising their exterior and triggering partial oxidation, then given a brief firing to limit moisture. It's a painstaking process that must be repeated extensively before the tea is ready to be fired for the final time, but the refined taste is well worth the extra effort.
White tea is the only category of tea in which the leaf is never rolled or shaped in any way, unlike every other category of tea. However, white tea does share important elements of both green tea and oolong tea, and on the oxidation scale is close to green.
White teas go through the least amount of processing of any tea, but are highly dependent on environmental conditions for their quality, so therefore they are very difficult to produce. The fresh-plucked leaves are first briefly withered in direct sunshine, and then brought into open-air sheds for full withering for a couple of days, where the wind moving over the tea is carefully regulated by shutters on the shed walls. The final removal of moisture is done by very low baking. The long withering probably contributes some of the oolong-like flavors, while the lack of oxidation creates notes of green tea, but ultimately the process makes something unique: a white tea.
Black, green, oolong, and white: These are the well-known major categories of tea. There's a fifth category of teas, called Pu-Erh.
Pu-Erh (pronounced "poo-ERR") can be defined as any tea that goes through a long oxidation and aging process. The name comes from the ancient market town of Pu-er, and covers a wide range of teas produced primarily in Yunnan. It begins with fresh leaves plucked and then briefly withered indoors, de-enzymed with heat, and rolled. The following day, the leaf is spread out in the sun to make, essentially, a sun-dried green tea. The dried, dark green leaf is dampened and heaped into piles for a controlled, deep fermentation. This secondary oxidation is what gives Pu-Erh its distinctive black color. At the end of the oxidation process, the leaf is graded. Now, things get even more interesting. Pu-Erh tea is sometimes left in loose-leaf form, but more often it is resteamed, compressed into a cake, re-dried and individually wrapped in paper.
Grading on Appearance
The rolling process produces leaf particles of all shapes and sizes, which infuse at varying rates and influence how the tea tastes in your cup. Smaller, more broken leaves tend to liquor faster, enhancing the tea's body and pungency. Even the same leaves rolled in a different fashion can produce noticeable diversity in their flavors. So the final step before tea can be brewed is grading it according to breadth, density, and composition.
Grading isn't about assessing quality. It's purely for separating leaves into groups of uniform size and appearance for better infusion and flavor. The dried leaves are sent through a series of mechanical sieves to be sorted into whole leaf, broken leaf, and fannings, then given one of the following grades based on more specific visual characteristics.
S. — Souchong
A bold, twisting leaf, often light in liquor. China is the most common producer of this grade.
F.O.P. — Flowery Orange Pekoe
Most commonly produced in India, this is a long leaf with a slightly open, "crushed flower" appearance.
O.P. — Orange Pekoe
A thin, wiry leaf with a tighter roll than F.O.P.
T. and G. — Tippy and Golden
Modifiers that are liberally used with both whole leaf and broken grades to indicate the presence of colorful tips in the dry leaf.
P. — Pekoe
A curly, large broken grade, typically without a visible tip. Sri Lanka is the largest producer of Pekoe grade.
B.O.P. — Broken Orange Pekoe
Small, squarish grade with good body and strength. India produces the best B.O.P.s.
F. — Fannings
Used for commercial tea bags, these are smaller than B.O.P., with less keeping quality. The name derives from traditional practice in which the broken grades were tossed in front of a fan, and the small particles blown off were called the fannings.