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About Tea

The Art of Tea Tasting

The S. D. Bells guide to tea tasting and production

First principles first:
What is tea?

Technically, tea is grown from the Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese camellia), or larger-leafed Camellia Sinensis var. assamensis tree. It is a close relative of, and looks very like the common Camellia bush in many domestic gardens!

What Type of Leaves do we use?

S.D. Bell’s use only Orthodox leaf for our loose-leaf teas. These larger-leaf teas are generally more rare and more expensive to produce than the mass produced CTC teas, which are milled into small particles to give a strong liquor and dark colour, but which lose their character and flavour as a result. CTCs are used predominantly in teabags, including those from SD Bell’s.

However the term tea has broadened to include many different herbal remedies, tisanes, infusions. While concentrating on the “orthodox” variety, we have an increasing variety of speciality teas, which include tisanes and beverages commonly referred to as tea, but not grown from the Camellia bush.

While some tea can be harvested mechanically, almost all tea, and absolutely all tea of quality is hand-plucked seasonally from the bush, a bud and two leaves being taken from each stalk.

They are then spread out in a warm atmosphere for withering followed by rolling and then fermented in a cool area and after final drying they are passed through meshed sieves from whence they are graded and packed into chests or sacks for export.

Tea Types – Orthodox and CTC

The two principal types of black teas are Orthodox and CTC (crush, tear and curl) Their processing techniques differ considerably:

CTC processed shoots are withered, milled, oxidized and dried, but are milled into tiny sand-like particles to give a strong liquor and dark colour, but which can lose their character and flavour as a result.

The process objectives during orthodox rolling are therefore:

  • to rupture the cell walls and expose their contents
  • to bring the contents of leaf cells in contact with air to start the process of oxidation
  • to twist the leaf and give it the desired shape or appearance.
  • to break the larger twisted leaves into smaller particles.
The combined effect of these processes is to influence the degree of fermentation, (and therefore strength of flavour) and the size of leaf (and therefore speed at which that flavour is imparted in the infusion in the cup or pot). Orthodox Leaf tea therefore allows much more subtle flavours, and a much more gentle infusion.

Rolling Table

Orthodox Leaf

An experienced tea buyer will select tea as follows:

Dry leaf. For size, shape, colour and weight. (Some teas by volume will be heavier than others owing to size of leaf and moisture content)
Infused liquor (liquid drink)
Hot – taste and colour
Cold – As above. For example, on cooling, good Indian teas quickly become opaque or ‘rusty’. Poorer teas slowly develop a muddy, rather than rusty appearance.
Infused leaf (separated from liquor). Colour, size, shape and smell. A bouquet is sought from smelling the infused leaf. The smell or “nose” of a woody character should be rejected. A copper colour is sought and a chocolate colour rejected.

Glossary of Tea terms:

Typical leaf gradings:

  • P Pekoe.A wiry, large, broken leaf, usually without golden tips. Sri Lanka produces large amounts of Pekoe
  • OP Orange Pekoe. Refers to a high quality thin, wiry leaf, rolled more tightly than F.O.P. Picked later in the year than F.O.P.
  • F.O.P. Flowery Orange Pekoe. Refers to high quality, whole leaf tea, made from the first two leaves and bud of the shoot. India produces large amounts of this grade.
  • GFOP Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. The golden refers to the colourful tips at the end of the top bud.
  • TGFOP Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. FOP with larger amount of tips
  • FTGFOP Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. An even higher quality with more tips than FOP
  • SFTGFOP Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Even higher quality still. Rare. Think of a top Champagne!
  • S Souchong. A twisted leaf picked from the bottom of the tea bush. China produces this grade used in their smokey teas.

Broken Leaf Broken leaf teas produce a darker cup and infuse faster than whole leaf teas.

  • BOP Broken Orange Pekoe. A small, flat, broken leaf with medium body.
  • FBOP Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • GBOP Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
  • GFBOP Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe


  • F Fannings. Crushed leaf which infuses very quickly
  • PD Pekoe Dust. Small grade, used in mass marketed tea bags
  • CTC Crushed Torn Curled
S.D. Bells & Co. Ltd.
Coffee Roasters & Tea Blenders
512-516 Upper Newtownards Rd.
Knock, Belfast BT4 3HB
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