Drinking Xingyang Pu’er to stave off the Minnesota winter, I am reminded of one of my dearest tea friends in China, Wang Shilin. I first found Wang Shilin’s tasting room while scouting for fine Yixing clay teapots. There was a certain pot whose grace and sparkle just caught my eye like no yixing pot before it.
Walking in to the tasting room timidly, I looked around at the walls of yixing and the pu’er bricks stacked to the ceiling. Wang Shilin was sitting at the tasting table brewing up Tieguanyin in an yixing pot with a long handle that I later found out was his pride and joy. He was a kindly-looking man in his mid-forties wearing the coolest pair of vintage 1950’s glasses I have ever seen. His wife, sporting a fresh perm, was sitting on a stool polishing up a carved walnut tea table. Wang Shilin seemed a bit nervous, but said in very slow and clear Chinese, “please drink tea.”
“Thank you. You have a beautiful teapot.” Wang Shilin was immediately relieved and seemed to brighten up.
“Oh, I am sorry, I thought you didn’t speak Chinese. My English is too terrible. You like the teapot?”
“Yes, I have never seen an Yixing pot with such a long handle. The clay is also a wonderful color.” I could tell that Wang Shilin was proud of this one.
“Thank you! People always ask to buy this one, but the artist just retired last year and this is the last piece of his that I have.” Wang went on to show me the very piece I had admired in the window. “This is a Zhang Quanlin pot,” he said almost reverently. “Master Zhang is only 30 years old, and already becoming one of the most famous potters in Yixing. Go ahead, pick it up and turn the lid.”
I carefully grasped the beautiful pot and turned the lid, which is a way of evaluating the fit of the pot. Most pots have a slight abrasive quality when the lid is turned, sticking, or making a noise. This is a sign that they were machine-cast or sanded down to fit. This one seemed to float. It was by far the most perfectly crafted teapot I had ever seen in person, and I let Wang Shilin know my opinion.
Wang Shilin was extremely pleased that I noticed the same details that he cared about. We quickly became friends. Many people in the tea industry will show you something they have a strong opinion of if they are interested in you. It is a kind of test to determine your understanding of tea culture. If they are satisfied, they will move on and bring out many of their favorite teas that are otherwise out of reach for passers-by.
Sure enough, Wang Shilin and his wife invited me to sit and drink tea with them. He dumped out the Tieguanyin that he had been steeping and pulled out a small bag of aged Tieguanyin. Usually aged Tieguanyin is roasted once a year for 5-20 years before released. Wang Shilin wanted to share a Tiegunyin that was allowed to age naturally without the extra roasting for over 20 years.
We chatted away the afternoon together. Wang Shilin has a lot of very strong opinions. He is morally opposed to soft drinks, lamenting that they are seducing young people away from pu’er. He is also not shy to tell you how much he can’t stand the people who come into his shop and look at exquisite pieces like his solid walnut tea boards carved straight from a piece of a fallen tree, and ask for money off because the board follows the natural shape of the wood instead of being a perfect square. He was also a big fan of the Timberwolves, and was excited to hear I was from Minnesota.
It finally came time for me to leave for the day. I told him that I would be back next week when I had time so that we could continue our conversation. It was at that moment that he looked around shiftily and exchanged a knowing glance with his wife. She nodded at him and he told me to wait for a minute. I was very intrigued. He pulled out a little paper bag, rolled it up and closed it with a staple. “Here, take this with you. Try it when you get home and let me know what you think.” The grin on his face told me that this was one secret that he was quite proud of.
I was going to take the bus back to my place, but I found a taxi instead. I was too eager to find out what Wang Shilin had given me. I opened the bag to find the biggest and most beautiful shu pu’er leaves I had ever seen. The smell coming from the bag reminded me of being in an old library. What I had been given turned out to be Xingyang 1998 Golden Leaf pu’er. I have tried older teas, but none to rival the complexity of this one.
I knew I told Wang Shilin that I would be a full week before returning but I couldn’t wait more than three days. I rushed back and told Wang all about my tasting experience. He had the expression on his face of knowing exactly what I was going to say, and feeling satisfied to hear it out loud. He brewed it up for me again, explaining how different Xingyang is. The tea liquor was perfectly crystalline, he pointed out. Many old pu’ers may grow better, but they can also get murkier over time. Xingyang’s does not.
It turns out that Wang Shilin went down to Xingyang Workshop in Yunnan at least twice a year and became very good friends with the family that ran the place. He finally convinced them to let him share their teas in Qingdao, a city near the farm where our Laoshan teas are produced. I don’t know how he did it, but he was able to get enough Xingyang tea for Verdant to sell on a limited scale. The Xingyang 1998 was the first that I tried, but the 2007 Imperial and the 2008 Nuggets proved to me that Xingyang workshop had something special going on.
Wang Shilin introduced me, over the months, to the complexities of shu pu’er and to yixing clay teapots. Before I left China, I gave him one of my finest hand-painted bone china tea cups, and explained to him that it was an antique from England. He was so delighted that he pulled out that Zhang Quanlin teapot that I had seen the very first day I met him and left it in my care.