Maharani left, Maharaja right, in all photos
It's been awhile since I've been on this subject, reviewing Darjeeling, and I've heard of changes since I was. Peter Jones, a coffee and tea expert and manager at the Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boulder (probably a good place to grab some tea), has mentioned how Gopaldhara has been working with plucking standards, and new harvesting and tea processing methods. A little off standard theme here, Peter was just cited in an interesting article on using plant based milk versions for coffee drinks. Gopaldhara's earlier, standard teas had been some of the best Darjeeling versions I've tried, so any improvement on that level sounded promising.
What kind of changes, one might wonder. Harvesting more whole leaf material, for a start. This has long since been a main difference between Chinese and Indian teas, although in rare cases Indian producers have been changing that. I've tried a lot of whole-leaf Assam versions in the past couple of years, with varying results for processing styles and quality level, some quite impressive.
The subject of Indian oolong comes up again. The earlier versions I've tried from India were nothing like oolong, only semi-oxidized black teas instead. That's fine, as long as that processing works out well, if results justify making a tea in that style. Matching Chinese processing and final results never would be possible, due to plant type and terroir differences; the outcome would vary. It will be really interesting to check on more recent progress in semi-oxidized tea range.
Of course first flush Darjeeling most often isn't fully oxidized, leaving it somewhere between black, white, green, and oolong range for inputs and final style. And that works; backing off oxidation level lets the freshness and floral intensity shine through much better. The point in these changes, as I understand it, isn't to copy any other style, but instead to maximize the potential of the leaves and to create a unique, distinctive range of new Darjeeling styles, based on what worked well in the past. I'll have to do an interview post on that, since the philosophy of tea and historical tie-in all sound as interesting as the results themselves. The details of processing differences alone is a fascinating sub-theme.
Those stories being relevant depends on those results; making a new range of uninteresting or only somewhat pleasant teas could only be a stepping stone towards doing better. But I think Gopaldhara is well beyond that point, that this status describes "Indian oolong" attempts in the past better. Not to say it never worked; in the past I've loved one Indian oolong version that just landed close to second flush Darjeeling for style.
I really need to research what these tea types are since they are labeled by brand names. A few are a little familiar, but in general it's mostly completely new to me. Only one actually says "oolong," and only one references being first flush tea. So I picked two with unfamiliar names, which I'll get back to describing further in an edit addition to the notes. These are Maharani and Maharaja of Darjeeling. I'd assume that means something like "king and queen of Darjeeling," but even the term doesn't ring a bell. I live in a country heavily influenced by Indian culture, in Thailand, but it's also equally or more influenced by Chinese culture and modernization, so not much for traditional Indian terminology carries over.
I'll brew these Gongfu style. In very rare cases brewing Western style does actually work better, but it's more common for it to not make a difference, in cases when Gongfu brewing doesn't produce clearly better results. For some black and green teas it seems not to matter, for example. It's hard to pin down exactly when either approach makes the most sense; as you try brewing lots of types of teas in different ways the patterns seem clearer to you. But of course that depends on personal preference, with quality of tea factoring in.
It's easy to keep obtaining decent, but less than well-above-average quality, or not-true-to-type versions of teas, even if you try the same sub-type of tea many times. For using a narrow sourcing approach that should happen; it would be expected. It's just as common for people discussing teas online to mention that they've only ever tried 2 or 3 versions of a type (or even 1), and then continue on about how that type works out, extending that to the rest of the range (related to source area origin, unusual tea type, aging as an input; whatever it is). That's fine for people to work with the information they have, but in learning about any subject you need to be able to filter or adjust weighting of sources, or factor in biases, or personal judgment error. For some of these versions pushing into new stylistic territory the whole point is that the character is new, but I'll see how these two versions match up as I try them.
Gopaldhara's site input on those teas:
The name itself signifies queen of all teas, the best Darjeeling First Flush tea from Gopaldhara Tea Estate which stretches up to 7000 Ft. The pluckers are very careful while plucking the leaves and make sure only best shoots with prominent buds are plucked. The leaves are mostly comprising of single or two whole leaves and a bud. The leaves undergo mild oxidation process to ensure all the exquisite flavors are prominently present. Then they are gently rolled which helps them in opening up by the pot when brewed. The dry leaves look greenish with lots of tips which gives a smooth and perfectly balanced cup. The texture is light yellow and bight amber cup liquor which will remind you of the freshness of Darjeeling hills. With each sip you can immediately fell the fruity and sweet clean flavor. The tea is smooth with no astringency and has taste of very matured and fruity tea.
The top elevation of Gopaldhara which stretches from 5500 to 7000 FT is planted with the best quality clones. Also the bushes are fresh as they have just come out of hibernation from the prolonged winter of almost 4 months from December to March. During the first flush also known as spring flush we have 100% growing shoots and get excellent buds with either single leaf or two leaves and a bud. The flavor is prominent as the weather is also very dry and cool which ensures very slow growth.
First Flush teas are known to be slightly oxidized. This tea is also made in the same way but it is sufficiently oxidized to ensure that all the exquisite flavors are prominently present. That Fresh Feeling of Darjeeling Tea is naturally available.
The plucking is of such fine quality that the tea is only needs to be hand sorted and the machines used to make the tea are very less. It is a true delight and one of our First Flush Darjeeling tea.
Maharaja of Darjeeling is one of the best second flush teas in the Darjeeling hills, made by AV2 bushes. This is a finest & rare Darjeeling muscatel tea from the highest elevated garden of Gopaldhara Tea Estate.
It is 100% handpicked with no machinery involved. The garden workers are very careful in their plucking to make sure only the best shoots with prominent buds are plucked. The top elevation of Gopaldhara Tea Estate which stretches up to 5500-7000 Ft is planted with the best quality AV2 bushes, the most preferred clones in Darjeeling.
The tea is super fine to taste and has all the characteristics of a premium tea. It brews into a very bright orange and clear cup having smooth fruity taste and muscatel character. The finish is long, honey sweet & captivating. It is one of our finest second flush teas and a must try for every summer tea lovers. With all these qualities it definitely qualifies to be named as the King of Teas.
Nice that I won't have to go back and change any of those notes then. Just kidding; I would probably explain it if I hadn't said that's what these are, but I would leave the notes as they were.
I could start to write this review based on scent alone, and then carry that further based on appearance. The first whiff of Maharani of Darjeeling shows a lot of intense muscatel, a flavor I've not experienced in this intensity for a long time. Beyond that there's a freshness, a bright floral and vegetal edge, with a clean depth to the scent range. I tend to never talk about dry leaf scent because it can not match brewed results, so to some extent it doesn't matter.
The Maharaja is warmer, richer, and probably a little sweeter, but also with pleasant muscatel range, probably oxidized more. You can tell that it likely is from the color, but also from scent alone. These will be good. Not good as in "pleasant tea," and not bad; good as in a unique experience, on a quality level that you can put time, effort, and resources into finding and still not run across.
I'm not going to discard a rinse of these teas. That sort of goes without saying, but given that people with different backgrounds might read this I might as well be clear on it. That's recommended for sheng and shu pu'er, and hei cha, and not uncommon for rolled oolongs, and from there it just depends. It comes up a lot in Chinese brewing process, for some people almost universally applied. I tend to draw that line after sheng, shu, and hei cha, and not even rinse rolled oolongs, but it does help the first infusion get going for those.
Maharani of Darjeeling: a fascinating experience. Muscatel does stand out, and some floral nature, and the rest is going to be hard to describe as clearly. There's a thickness and a creaminess to this tea; that almost shouldn't be there, for this first infusion just getting going, since it's too soon for that positive range on this level to set in. There's a slight edge of astringency and vegetal flavor to this, the kind of thing that would be dominant in a lot of Darjeeling experience, that would challenge a taster to really appreciate the tea for it standing out so much. Here it's complementary, a secondary context-range level. The overall effect is very balanced and clean. Sweetness is good, flavor complexity is good, there are no negative aspects, and it all hangs together well.
For as much as I've said that description doesn't do the experience justice. There's a creaminess to the floral tone (flavor) that matches the feel, a warm and rich tone, as I'd imagine sun-flowers to smell, but I don't recall ever smelling those. Part of the bright freshness leads to a lemony citrus, beyond a citrus range being warmer with more depth, the muscatel effect. It's quite good; unusually so.
Maharaja of Darjeeling: warmer and richer, all the differences one would expect for oxidation level being ramped up quite a bit. I guess that sort of maps onto expectations for first and second flush versions [later edit: because that's what they are]. This version is a little more muted at this early stage, more as I would've expected the other to be for this being a fast first infusion. I suppose a lot of the same aspects in the other tea are copied over to this, the citrus, a thick feel, good balance, sweetness, and depth, just in a completely different range. I love true black teas; it definitely works for me. There is no significant edge of astringency in this, although a hint of warm mineral and very light malt add a bit of complexity, again in a complementary fashion, as with very different light edge in the other version.
It seems like intuition (guessing) made for a great introduction to these teas, related to selecting these two. In a sense these are the two sides of Darjeeling teas, how first and second flush tend to work out, just in a very high level form. Third flush is closer to second, at best, more often relatively fully oxidized, but with a different subtlety and depth, trading out intensity for other range that can be very positive. Maybe even more so, if the balance works perfectly. Really that's what I remember most about Gopaldhara teas from trying them a few years back, that one third flush version (Red Thunder). It definitely worked. That 2019 listing called Red Thunder an oolong; regardless of name or type identification if it's as good as I remember it previously it's worth picking up a lot of it.
I'll hold off on describing this second tea further until the aspects show better next round.
Maharani: this picked up a lot of intensity and depth. That astringency edge ramped up too, but the balance is still great. The vegetal flavor and astringency I speak of is like biting a flower stem, nothing like grass or green beans or the rest. Floral tones warm up; this is leaning a little towards dried fruit range at this point. It's not there; it just shifts from bright floral tone closer to one like lavender. I don't think you could brew lavender and get it to taste this much like floral range, even if it was edible. I just looked that up, you can eat lavender, but need to be careful about quantity or else a soapy aftertaste joins the positive flavor (Wikipedia's take, not mine).
Citrus covers a lot of range in this, again. What I interpret as muscatel and brighter lemon is joined by what tastes like orange peel zest to me. This tea is so intense that a positive aftertaste trails after, joining the creamy feel in adding depth to overall experience. This is clearly one of the best Darjeeling versions I've ever tried. Sometimes a tea range never makes sense to you until you try a really good version of one, then you have an "I get it!" moment, and later even lesser quality versions seem better, they make more sense. This tea is more than good enough to trigger that kind of experience.
Maharaja: this is a really nice tea too, I just feel a bit blown away by the other to appreciate it as much as I otherwise might. It's very positive, but in a range that seems more standard to me. Warm, rich tones cover positive flavor range, and the feel works well, smooth and full, with a bit of supporting structure. The second part is towards dryness but not dry, just adding body. Flavor depth carries more of the weight of the experience, consisting of richer citrus and floral tones, supported by some warm underlying mineral tone that is easy to miss.
This is really good tea, but the novelty and added intensity of the other version outshines it, per my take on the experiences. This might work better to drink more of as a beverage, that warmer, richer, deeper range. I guess that could sort of relate to how if you take a sip of Pepsi and of Coke the brighter, sweeter flavor of Pepsi will seem more positive, but to drink a can of either Coke might work better for many, as an experience that repeats a lot.
Sweetness is really positive in both of these teas, just in a different range in both. A lack of negative aspects also is; that can be harder to place. It would be very normal for a different, heavier, challenging astringency edge to join both experiences, but it's not there.
I'll have to go to a yoga class soon, so this will be a final take until after a break.
Maharani: transitioning; all those flavor aspects are different. I'll not do justice to how, for being in a rush, and the difference is so subtle description wouldn't go far anyway. A caramel sweetness seemed to pick up in this, and rich warm tone. That very mild astringency dropped back, from a minor supporting aspect to hardly present at all. This is a smooth as a light rolled Chinese oolong, not at all what you would expect for a Darjeeling in this oxidation level and other flavor range. They can be smooth but not like this. Floral range and citrus combine in a wonderful way, not so different than as described before.
Maharaja: more of the same; clean, complex, well balanced, interesting. Warmer citrus and floral tones play a similar role but in a different form and different context. That overall balance stands out; amazing to have all those aspects work so well, and then integrate this well together. These are truly exceptional tea examples. And I'm just getting started.
I used slightly more of the Maharaja leaf, an error in judging quantity by eye (how I always do it), but that worked out somehow, the intensities match each other perfectly. This second tea will probably "brew out" as fast as the first too; you give up a little duration in trading out flavor and other aspect range with oxidation like that.
from a couple of infusions later, but I never did get back to taking notes
Just fantastic teas. I drank at least 4 or 5 more very pleasant infusions, and the leaves aren't finished yet, but I didn't take notes about those. It seemed similar, probably just with some slight transition in aspects. Not enough that it left out a lot of the story in skipping that part. It definitely held up well, continuing to produce very positive infusions, without aspect range transitioning in any negative way.
It's cool that these turned out to be first and second flush examples. It's not the most impressive blind tasting feat to have noticed that, but still a good start for getting back into Darjeeling. I probably did review versions of at least one of these teas 3 or 4 years ago, which is probably why it seemed like those terms might mean king and queen. I doubt the mapping to flush (harvest season) was stored anywhere in residual memory, but that part was simpler to spot, even from dry leaves.
I may have evaluated the first flush version more positively for not having tried a tea like that for awhile, with the second flush (standard black tea) more comparable to drinking a lot of black teas over a long period of time. I end up drinking some really exceptional black teas too, from lots of countries; the benchmark range I'd be expecting would be pretty high in quality level. Dian Hong, or Yunnan black teas, are a personal favorite, so just not matching that style and range might come across as less positive. Make no mistake though; that Maharaja version seemed like very good tea.