Lao Ban Zhang is widely regarded as the "King of Puers". This dusty village in the Bulang mountain range, near the Myanmar border, produces some of the priciest puer in recent years, especially since the Chen Sheng factory came to town in 2007 and signed contracts to buy up the entire annual supply of most family farms. By monopolising supply & ramping up prices, Chen Sheng (陈升茶厂) became infamous amongst the puer community. In China, a tradition of lavish gift giving (some call it graft) requires the recipient to be at least vaguely aware of the value of the gift, so every gift category requires a highly recognizable, highly priced pinnacle product. For French wine, it's Chateau Lafite. For puer tea, it's Lao Ban Zhang. Ultimately, it was a win-win for both Chen Sheng & the Lao Ban Zhang villagers. Everybody got rich. And the remote village of Lao Ban Zhang became a holy destination for Puer pilgrims, even though the bumpy dirt track into town is so not luxury.
Young tea plants on the dirt track leading into Lao Ban Zhang
On arrival in Lao Ban Zhang we were stopped at the village gate by a guard who made a precursory check of our vehicle, to make sure we were not smuggling in any outside maocha or fresh leaves into the village. This was a bit of a farce, as everyone knows the locals bring in tea from surrounding areas at night. If we had bought maocha in Hekai, I wonder if they would have made us leave our vehicle at the gate?
The main gate of Lao Ban Zhang, where guards check for outside maocha
The first building past the gate is the famous Chen Sheng factory, with its large concrete patio overlooking the whole town. Then the freshly paved concrete road winds down into the valley, in-between construction sites, newly vacant lots & shabby old shacks that suddenly seem out of time & place. It’s pretty easy to see which families own the most trees from the size of their renovations.
Lao Ban Zhang ground zero - blue roofs indicate new wealth
We had lunch with Ge Er 戈二, one of the growing number of villagers who is not contracted to sell his tea to Chen Sheng. As the price of LBZ maocha continues to skyrocket, many households are breaking contract to sell direct to private buyers descending on the town. There is a rumor circulating that this is all part of Chen Sheng's nefarious plan to drive prices further up, whilst still controlling the bulk of supply. I recently discovered that Chen Sheng are planning to emulate this model in Nannuo mountain, where they have already planted signs for their future factory.
Lunch in Lao Ban Zhang, with local baijiu for the brave!
We polished off a bottle of baijiu with Ge Er in a local restaurant, but getting him tipsy still wasn’t enough to convince him to sell us some of his maocha. “I’m already worried I can’t fulfill my current orders this year,” Ge Er sighed. “There’s more buyers than there are tea leaves!”
I guess it’s only fair that loyal, large-order customers get priority over strangers who come knocking on the door. And at RMB 1,600/kg, I wasn't in the market for a large order anyway! Ge Er politely put me in my place and agreed to sell me some if I put an advance order in and came back next year.
Spent Lao Ban Zhang 2011 Spring leaves
Back at his house, we at least got to drink some of this years harvest, sitting on the roof of his garage with an nice view over the village. Even this free sample was not easy to come by - after we finished it, there was no more forthcoming. I felt this was a bit stingy, compared to the generous sample bags given away at other villages. Like lining up for an hour to get into Louis Vuitton in Paris, begging for leaves in Lao Ban Zhang is a humbling experience. LBZ is a town where buyers are price insensitive, and the locals earn an average of RMB 300,000 a year. We were out of our league, and treated like poor tourists.
Lao Ban Zhang - a village in transition
A fistful of dollars - check out the downy white hairs!
A large tin shed built in front of his house sheltered 100kg of fresh leaves which Ge Er had laid out on the floor to wither. Because of the recent rain, he estimated it would take 4.3kg of fresh leaves to make 1kg of maocha this year. We admired the fine white hairs coating the leaves, a LBZ specialty.
A small fortune in LaoBanZhang maocha
On the other side of Ge Er’s house, large mats covered in maocha were drying under overcast skies. It usually takes 5 hours to dry, but it suddenly began to drizzle. “Quick!” Ge Er yelled, “Everyone help to bring the maocha inside!” We hustled into action, almost falling down the steep stairs of his hut, then struggled to roll up & lift the heavy mats with their valuable cargo. It tooks us a few minutes to get all the tea inside the shed, where most of the available space was already covered in wilting leaves!
Hustling to bring the maocha inside
Flushed with baijiu and the sudden exertion of moving a small fortune in tea, we sat down and started a 2nd session with a Nannuo bing that one of Ge Er’s customers had pressed. I was the happy recipient of a free bing, only to discover in subsequent tastings, that the tea has a weird chemical taste, that could be pesticides or simply the result of being stored in the car for too long! I’ve since broken up this cake and consigned it to soaking up the smells of new clay pots.
The tainted Nannuo bing
In the end, I was able to pick up 3kg of LBZ spring maocha from another source, just enough to make a tong of 357g cakes, with enough maocha left over for months of frivolous drinking. Reflecting back, I admire Ge Er's refusal to sell us any maocha, as it suggests he’s a man who does the right thing by his customers, not the greedy, unscrupulous type of dealer one might expect, given the easy money that's flooded the village in recent years.
Footnote: This visit took place in early April 2011. I have heard the price for LBZ spring maocha this year reached a record breaking RMB 1,900 / kg!