My first exposure to tea in a serious way was under the training of Wang Huiming, a master Tieguanyin taster and gongfu ceremony practitioner from Xiamen. She taught me almost all I know about tea as hospitality, the act of sharing, the humilty, and of course about precise and meticulous tasting. However, whenever I asked her about pu’er, she would pull out one of the brochures that Menghai and Xiaguan factories sent her and read off their catch-phrases. “So, what is good pu’er, Wang Huiming?” She would look a bit concerned, and rummage around in consultation with the brochures, pulling out bricks with different numbers on them.
“Well, this one is supposed to be good. It is a high grade tea on the Menghai grading system.” I was quickly seeing that Wang Huiming had very little interest in pu’er. I was also quickly seeing that I had very little interest in the flavor profiles that these big factory bricks provided. They were all a bit murky, a bit too sickly sweet, and altogether uninteresting compared to the transcendent Tieguanyin we had been drinking together.
I resolved to find a pu’er teacher. Walking the tea markets, I would peer into each shop. Many shops were stuffed with pu’er, but all the bricks were your standard everyday labels. I was looking for someone who had teas beyond the easy to find pu’ers. Anyone could source Menghai and Xiaguan. There must be more to it than this though. Finally, I poked my head into Wang Yanxin’s shop. She was only 24 at the time, clearly friendly looking, but there was something about her. She had a look in her eyes beyond her age, a determination and experience. Most importantly to my search, her shop was filled with bricks from workshops I had never seen before.
“Come in, sit down. I am brewing up some Tieguanyin right now.” It was a good sign that she invited me in, but I was hoping she had some pu’er in that gaiwan.
“Thank you. This must be the new spring harvest. Very floral, very smooth.” She was impressed that I could pinpoint her tieguanyin, and pleased to see it being enjoyed. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I was hoping to learn a bit about pu’er, and it looks like you have a really unique collection. Wang Yanxin’s eyes lit up.
“You like pu’er? My collection is nothing though. Still so new. What sort of profile do you like best, zhangxiang, guoxiang, nuomixiang?” She was already pulling down bricks.
“Actually, I know very little about pu’er. I am studying tea culture in China, and have researched just about every other kind of tea. I know that pu’er culture is perhaps the deepest of all, but I haven’t had a chance to learn yet.”
“You are here to research tea culture? How wonderful. I wish people your age in China cared so much about tea. You Americans must really love tea.”
“Well, we don’t all study tea. Actually, most people in America drink iced tea.” Wang Yanxin looked terrified.
“Iced!? But the cold water…” (In China, cold beverages are considered harmful to health)
“I know, I know. But that is why I am here. I want to learn as much as I can and share it with people back home. If they could see what you are doing here, they would fall in love with tea.”
“In that case, you had better prepare for a lot of tea drinking. I am going to teach you about pu’er, but you will have to start at the lowest level, and drink the cheapest teas first. You have to be able to find something beautiful in the everyday teas before you are ready to appreciate these teas.” She gestured to her top shelf where a few bricks with price tags well over a thousand dollars were stacked.
“Really, you are willing to help me? Thank you! I am so excited to learn to love pu’er!” Wang Yanxin was true to her word. She brewed up hundreds of pu’ers in the first two weeks, starting with shu, or cooked pu’er and moving into sheng. Many of them were stomach-wrenchingly intense. I noticed that all of these lower-end pu’ers were little sample bags she pulled out from her cabinets, not teas that she actually sold in her shop.
Little by little, she started to bring out better teas. The turning point was when we were drinking shu pu’er and I was able to identify the major flavor profiles like zhang which is a pine-like cooling sensation, or nuomixiang which is a fragrant savory quality compared to sticky rice. She was also happy when I was able to tell her why I didn’t like one brick or another. She liked to hear when a sheng was drying in the back of the throat, or a shu was too murky. After realizing that I could at the very least appreciate one pu’er from another, she pulled out a brick, the Peacock Village ’04 Shu and brewed it with a smile on her face.
It was indeed a revelatory experience. I was drinking a pu’er and actually loving it. I had no idea before that point why people would choose to drink pu’er over other teas. Yet this beautiful brick of tea was brewing up with a complexity and gentle sweetness, nuanced notes of elderberry, a tart juiciness. It was like combining all the good elements of jasmine, green tea and Big Red Robe in one. From that point on, Wang Yanxin would bring out her finest pu’ers, and we would discuss them like giddy children.
Despite Wang Yanxin’s gentle and patient nature, she could turn on a dime, becoming a formidable woman fighting for the cause of tea culture. One day we were discussing how sad it was that so many people would barge into her shop simply asking for the most expensive teas without trying them or caring about the culture behind the tea. Sure enough, that day a man decked out in police badges and rank insignia saunters in and asks for Wang’s most expensive Tieguanyin. Wang Yanxin wasn’t even particularly interested in Tieguanyin, but she carried a particularly fine one as more of a courtesy to her customers. “Oh, of course sir. This one is very good, very floral.”
“I can give it to you for 400 yuan a pound.” The police captain looked very skeptical.
“No, not good enough. I will find my tea somewhere else.” Wang Yanxin’s look flashed with quite an intensity for a moment, and then she composed herself and smiled.
“Well, for my most discerning customers I do have one other Tieguanyin. It is very rare, and only for the most elite customers.” She put the original bag away, and then pulled out the same 400 yuan tea again. “This one is 50,000 yuan a pound if you want it.” The man examined it with a look of satisfaction.
“Yes, I will take it. Find me a good box.” Wang Yanxin’s eyes narrowed. she sealed up her Tieguanyin and put it away.
“Get out of my shop. Get out, and don’t come back.” The shock on the policeman’s face was priceless. “You didn’t even bother to look at the tea. I just showed you the same tea twice. You disrespect tea culture, and disrespect the tea.” He was so red in the face that he didn’t even know what to say. I was sure that he was going to arrest her, but instead he backed out of the shop and scurried down the block. I had a newfound respect for Wang Yanxin, and her commitment to the ideals of tea. Perhaps showing such extreme anti-hospitality is a bit contradictory, but I think she was trying to teach me a lesson, to teach me not to lose humility. I always remember that I do not have the right to stand above the tea and judge it. The tea is above me, and I am given the privilege to enjoy it for all it is worth. If I ever get to absorbed in judging a tea, I just think about what Wang Yanxin would say and she puts me in my place.
Wang Yanxin started her tea shop when she was 22 years old, and decided that she was going to devote herself to the wonders of Yunnan and pu’er in general. She spent months every year down in Xishuangbanna studying with the farmers, cultivating friendships, and learning what goes into fine pu’er. I met her at age 24, and she already posessed the most formidable pu’er tasting palate I had seen. Her collection today is perhaps the very finest in China. I don’t praise it so much for its age or monetary value by the collectors book, but rather for the incredible depth of flavor represented in it, and for the obscure bricks it contains. Wang Yanxin’s collection is a living and joyful tribute to pu’er that maintains a respect for the individual families who produce it.
When I contacted her about getting help connecting with the farmers of Yunnan and sourcing bricks up to her level of quality, I was very nervous. I was afraid that she would think that I was in it for the money, but she understood immediately that my main interest was in sharing these flavors as a way of communicating tea culture. She agreed to help me out right away. As a result of our partnership, she has been able to expand and open a much bigger shop representing our tea friends’ work in pu’er. She distributes the funds I send her to family cooperatives that are otherwise seeing great pressure from big factories, and allows them to continue their innovative work in making pu’er better every year.