This particular Sanhetang cake is from they of the Xizihao fame. This sample was kindly provided (about a hundred years ago) by TA - I do not know the link between this cake and the eponymous "cigarette box", but I suspect that it must be the format of the tea. Either than or it tastes like Marlboro.
The suspicions of little-brickiness begin to become more firm as we examine the small chunks of leaf, pictured above, which have the sharp edges of brick tea. As is typical for zhuancha, the leaves are small and broken. I begin to wonder why Sanhetang have stooped to creating brick tea. Then I remember the 2010 Xiaozhutong [little bamboo-tong] from Sanhetang, which was dreadful and which Houde sold to me without me trying a sample (silly, silly me). Clearly Sanhetang is not above making the odd wacky, terrible pu'ercha.
However, my considerable faith in the skills of Sanhetang are restored on brewing it up: despite the fact that the public frontman for Sanhetang has committed the ultimate crime of wearing a pony-tail, he does know his pu'ercha. This particular example is a solid yellow-orange, as pictured above, and as clean as ever they were from this brand.
Sanhetang even seems to be able to make brick tea into something enjoyable: it has a lively base of dried fruits, and a decent kuwei [good bitterness]. It is also rather energetic, and seems to have something to say. This is at odds with the simply univariate bitterness of many zhuancha.
As the leaves begin to open, and the nuggets separate yet further in the belly of Zidu, my pot, they reveal some more Yiwushan complexity: alongside that thick, clean sharpness comes plenty of regional character that suggests Sanhetang has used decent leaves, even if they appear as mulch within the maocha.
The leaves show no sign of weakening from their state of thick sweetness, even after a dozen infusions. They must have been leaves from a good, healthy set of trees: even fragmented, they seem to last forever. I am impressed that the "cigarette box" turned out to be much better than its dreadful name suggested. Thanks again to TA for the sample.