Posted by David at Arbor Teas on November 21, 2010
There’s something alluring about the way gunpowder green tea pellets unfurl in hot water. The leaves lift and twirl in a delicate dance, bending and turning with invisible currents and convection in the water. Half of the fun of drinking this tea is in the experience of watching the leaves unfold; the other half is in the nutty, vegetal flavor - often with a hint of smoke. But if you think that’s all there is to gunpowder tea, you might be surprised to know that this tea has a rich history and is much older than you’d expect.
In the Beginning
Gunpowder teas are green teas native to the Zhejiang Province of China, and have been around since the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Though Zhejiang has historically been the primary source of gunpowder teas, a number of other provinces now contribute to the production of this style, in addition to locales beyond China's borders.
Evidence of British interest in gunpowder teas can be found as early as 1771, in “Osbeck’s Voyage to China and the East Indies,” by Johann Forster. He describes a type of tea “rolled up like peas... A smaller kind is called Gunpowder Tea,” and in 1795, the British ambassador to China comments on “The shrub which bears what is called the Imperial and Gunpowder teas.”
Why Are Gunpowder Green Teas Rolled?
Rolling the leaves into little balls helps protect them from physical damage during transport and storage, and helps preserve the flavor of the tea. Traditionally, the individual leaves were rolled up by hand, and in the highest quality varieties this is still the case. The majority of commercial gunpowder teas, however, are rolled by machines these days. In some cases, the friction of the machine-rolling process will heat up the leaves, altering the flavor slightly.
What’s in a Name?
There are several possible sources for the “gunpowder” sobriquet:
--> The rolled-up tea leaves look like little gray pellets of the stuff;
--> The pellets “explode” as they steep in hot water;
--> Teas in this style tend to have a smoky flavor, and the British are fond of puns!
The Joy of Gunpowder
There is generally an inverse relationship between the quality of the tea and the size of the pellets, so be on the look