Pekoe tea is a fine grade of tea which includes young tea leaves and buds. When well handled and brewed, the tea has a rich forest-like scent with a hint of bitterness and a sweet finish. Pekoe has long been prized as one of the finest of teas, and it has always been a popular Chinese export. Most markets carry Pekoe, and it is also usually available from stores which specialize in tea.
The name “pekoe” comes from the Chinese pek, meaning “white,” and ho, which means “down or feathers.” It is a reference to the fine white hairs which appear on tightly furled young tea buds when they are harvested to make pekoe tea. The individual pekoe leaves tend to be rather small and fine, and they will become wispy when they unfold in hot water. Pekoe itself is also graded, with the highest grade including two tea leaves around a tight tea bud.
India, Sri Lanka, and Java all produce this tea, which is sometimes labeled as “bud and leaf tea,” in a reference to the highest available grade. Once harvested, the pekoe can be treated in various ways to create a finished tea. It is usually bruised and allowed to oxidize so that it turns into black tea, although green pekoe tea is also produced in some places. Once the tea is finished, it may be packaged in looseleaf form or broken so that it will fit into teabags.
Many people are familiar with orange pekoe, a rather confusingly labeled form of pekoe tea. Orange pekoe is not flavored with orange, as one might expect from the name. Rather, the tea is named for the royal Dutch House of Orange, which was in power when the Dutch East India Company first began importing tea. The company wanted to imply that they had associations with the royal family, so they appended “orange” to “pekoe.” The ploy made orange pekoe tea quite popular.
Like many black teas, pekoe is best if it can be obtained in looseleaf form. The looseleaf tea contains only buds and leaves, and does not include stems and fannings from the sorting process. Since the leaves like a great deal of room to unfold, a French press is a great tool for brewing pekoe tea, as it will allow the flavor to mature. Always warm the brewing container before using it, and do not steep pekoe for longer than five minutes, as it can turn very bitter and tannic.