Of two samples recently introduced by Houde, this is the second and represents a cake that costs a somewhat substantial $175. Chen Zhitong's cakes are seldom inexpensive, whether via Taobao or Houde, and so I tread carefully.
This cake is allegedly a blend of leaves from Laobanzhang and Laoman'e, the neighbouring village. I have enjoyed Laoman'e leaves on many occassions now, and have come to love them. One of my favourites was a 2008 cake from Hailanghao, which, as coincidence would have it, is also a mixture from the same two villages.
Given the promixity of Laoman'e and Laobanzhang, it will come as no surprise to learn that many leaves from the former make their way into the latter, and are sold under the more expensive village's name. There have distinct characteristics, however, which are worthwhile coming to appreciate.
As much as Mr. Chen's business practices come in for criticism, the standard of his cakes is obvious. This particular cake has dark, fairly large leaves, which, in the cool air of an English winter, are quiet while in their dry state - perhaps hibernating.
This reticence disappears at the instant in which water touches leaf: the resulting aroma is a markedly delicious scent of light honey and candy-like sweetness. It sits around the wenxiangbei [aroma cup] for many minutes, and makes the whole room smell similarly pleasant.
You may see the orange soup in the photograph above; the character of the tea is a well-aged blend with a substantial (and very welcome) base of tobacco. Its body is low and strong, reminding me of the better Laoman'e cakes from my past experience. I suspect that this village may account for the majority of the blend, but there is a heavy, dense sweetness that occassionally reminds me of Laobanzhang leaves.
Mr. Chen does indeed know his tea, and the texture here is thick, smooth, and very satisfying.
Testimony to its endurance is the fact that it still takes short brews after twenty infusions, which few cakes can match. Even after all that time, it remains pungent, potent, and charmingly sweet, while never moving far from the rich, tobacco base with which it opened.
Its pricing is, naturally, problematic: is this three times better than the 2009 Yiwu Chawang? I have no doubt that this "Banzhang" cake would bring me much enjoyment, but I cannot pay $175 for it, on principle alone. That said, I highly recommend trying a sample - it would be hard to imagine any fan of potent pu'ercha disliking this solid little cake.