Gunpowder the propellant was invented in China in the 9th century – during the late Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). The invention appears to have been made accidentally by Taoist alchemists seeking to produce the elixir of immortality. Instead, they concocted what we call ‘black powder’ today. Whether or not the early testers attained their goal of ‘immortality’ is a matter of speculation!
Gunpowder tea is so named because of the logical play-on-words that exists between Gunpowder tea and gunpowder the propellant: the finished tea resembles the steel-grey/green color and pellet shape of the propellant gunpowder. Additionally, the ball-shaped finished tea pellets gently ‘pop’ open when exposed to the steeping water and, the stimulant nature of tea could be construed as a pun on the term propellant.
Both being of Chinese invention, it was most likely either an observant foreigner who first coined the term for use describing the tea or perhaps there was once a very improperly-labeled container that must have been a disappointment for the recipient who expected propellant and received tea by mistake!
Picture an English ship’s captain plying the waters of the South Pacific in the 1800’s. Imagine his disdain trying to fire his cannons at marauding pirates with only Gunpowder tea as a propellant! Cup of tea, Mate-y?
Gunpowder tea is one of the best-known and most liked of all the standard, country green teas. It’s popularity is perhaps due to how easy and forgiving this green tea is to infuse. It is simple to measure, will tolerate a range of water temperatures, and is cool to watch steep. Gunpowder tea can usually be steeped for a second infusion, depending on the duration of the initial infusion. Gunpowder tea is also the base tea used for Morocco’s famous Moroccan Mint tea.
Formerly rolled by hand, Gunpowder tea is now manufactured primarily by machinery (rollers and tumblers) that roll and shape the leaf tea into the familiar looking little pellets. Gunpowder tea was shaped into its pellet form originally for quality and keeping purposes, as it shipped more compactly and retained its fresh flavor better with so little surface area exposed. Gunpowder tea was among the first whole-leaf forms of tea, a logical progression from the compressed tea forms that preceded it.
Gunpowder tea is generally manufactured using more mature tasting and larger sized tea leaf during summer and fall harvest periods. Larger leaves are traditionally used for rolling the leaf tea into pellets as they are more pliable than spring leaf – which is important for properly shaping the tea pellets.
There are many grades (sizes) of Gunpowder tea, the finest being the smallest (as it is with most tea). The smallest size and highest grade is marketed as Imperial Pinhead. A small amount of our Imperial Pinhead Gunpowder tea is manufactured using early-season leaf a few weeks before the larger-leaf Gunpowder teas are made. This short -production seasonal tea has a clean, satisfying flavor and consists of very tiny pellets.
When plucking the leaf for Gunpowder tea, it is critical that the pickers be accomplished, as torn leaf will create problems during the rolling phase, and irregularly-sized leaf will need to be sorted out, as it is extremely difficult to roll uniform pellets from diverse leaf.