I try to avoid the big players when choosing tea for Ardea. I always wanted foster a unique portfolio of teas, procured through trusted relationships with small-scale family-owned operations. The teas from these sources would also, of course, have to be excellent quality and over the years I've tried and tested many samples from these suppliers to ensure that's what I get. Most of the time I buy tea off the back of specific samples but a lot of the time, when I feel I can trust someone, I'll buy something I haven't tasted based on their recommendation. There's always a gamble in those moments but for the most part it's paid off for me.
Nevertheless, I came to the realisation lately while manning a market stall that a lot of the teas I sell can be a bit overwhelming for beginners. When you walk up to a stall and are confronted by a menagerie of unusual if not unpronounceable Chinese tea names it can be hard to visualise anything relevant beyond that barrier. I've always been reluctant to name my teas something Western rather than their given name as I also want people to be able to discover the same type of tea somewhere else and compare it with mine given the chance. So lately I've allowed myself to tread into familiar territory to allow folks the opportunity to find something they might recognise. Any fan of Darjeeling teas will most likely have a favourite tea estate. For me, the best first flush Darjeeling I ever tasted was from Gopaldhara five years ago. I've heard people mentioning Gopaldhara many times recently in the tea community and so I felt like this was a sign to get in touch with them and bring some of their teas on board. The driving force behind this decision was to have a well established tea estate on offer, already renowned for quality, to give people the precious comfort and certainty that comes from an established name and history.
At the earliest hints of Spring I was feeling anxious to place my first order of new season tea. This was when I contacted Gopaldhara, which I then discovered also manage the Rohini estate. I had been watching their instagram with bated breath, ready to pounce on the first lots available. Speaking with Rishi Saria I could hardly contain my excitement and she spoke very highly of the rare Honey Clone variety she hoped to see coming out of Rohini this year. I was practically sold on the name immediately. With its availability in early March I decided to bite the bullet with this, forget about a traditional first flush Darjeeling, and instead purchase an autumn flush from 2019 (Gopaldhara Ruby Thunder) and an unusual winter picked oolong. Suddenly, the familiarity I had intended upon was thrown by the wayside. It felt slightly reckless but I had faith and I'm a bit of a sucker for the experimental. The Autumn flush would also make a great addition to my black tea range which I felt needed a bit of filling out and diversity. I've been really happy with all three choices. They're a curious blend of unusual and familiar, special treat and everyday drinker. I find myself choosing them often in my daily routine but they never fail to ignite the senses and the palate.
That's a little of the backstory. Today I set up another side-by-side tasting photoshoot to extol their virtues upon you all. Let's start with the Winter Ruby Oolong. I recently added this in as one of three teas for the Mystery Tea Club I'm part of. I knew it would challenge people's perceptions, maybe even creating a fierce love/hate divide, but throw people off guard a little. It did exactly that. When I smell the dry leaves on this one the first powerful scent I get is like a beechwood smoke, like smoked tofu or cheese. So unusual, and I just kept smelling and smelling the leaves repeatedly in amazement. That scent doesn't run through into the flavour, not much anyway. Instead there's a smooth, medium/full body with a soft, almost sweet fudge-like character. Predominantly though, this is a very savoury tea, with hints of pistachio and legume. On the finish there's a slight dryness but after all is said and done, a classic Darjeeling terroir. Best brewed between 90-95C and with shorter infusions. It does well in a teapot but may be best appreciated in the gaiwan to avoid the complexity of it becoming too muddy. This tea is picked in late winter, as mentioned, when the tea bushed are only barley out of dormancy and growth is very slow. A somewhat experimental variety it is definitely worth trying and honestly I love it. For those who like very savoury, nutty greens or umami character, this is a great choice.
Next up, the Honey Clone. It's very lightly oxidised, just enough to develop the flavour but to retain the light colour. As the name suggests, you'll find an aroma of sweet honey from the dry leaves and the denser mineral texture of it when infused. I also found a sweet tangerine-like flavour and once again on the finish the classic Darjeeling terroir. That classic character is displayed softly more akin to a white tea style. This AV2 clonal variety is grown in the mid-range area of Rohini, between 1500-3000 feet. You'll find lots of fine white haired buds and two small leaves.
Lastly, the autumn flush Ruby Thunder is in some ways the most complex of the three. As a fully oxidised black tea there are more developments on the flavour spectrum but the overall elegance is subdued in comparison to its early flushing cousins. The dry leaves say spicy and musty. The flavour brings out that spiciness, paired with a malt loaf sweetness, dried fruit, and tea cake character. A lemony, citrus acidity creates a spark of life amongst those heavier flavours, but the depth and complexity carries on and provides multiple steeps if the brewing time is kept shorter. The colour should be verging on ruby red but no darker if it can be avoided. There's a strong energy from this one too, giving an immediate jolt to the system, great as a morning tea.