Gunpowder releases a definite aroma of burnt wood, definitely charred though lacking the piney smokiness of Lapsang Souchong. The medium bodied, light brown liquor carries through the notes of charred, grilled leeks.
For centuries, Gunpowder has served as the base for Arabian mint tea, sweetened with plenty of sugar. Its strong charred flavors taste wonderful with mint and citrus, but the tea is also delicious on its own.
Gunpowder is not a Qing Ming (spring tea); since it gets all its flavors from its processing methods, the tea does not require leaves with much inherent strength. It is made from tougher and less tender later-season leaves, foliage that has grown almost twice as long as leaves plucked in the earlier spring. The leaves are fixed and then fired for an extended period in a hot even until they become shiny and slightly burnt. The oven is designed like a Laundromat dryer, tumbling the leaves over and over in a hot metal cylinder.
Gunpowder is produced almost entirely for export. For many years one of the only green teas available in the United States, it has been produced for more than two hundred years near coastal trading ports like Ningbo and in its ancestral home of Zhejiang province The tea most likely gets its name from the shape of its leaves, so tightly rolled that they resemble the pellets soldiers once used as musket shot. With its balled form and heavy firing, Gunpowder is among the most stable teas for transport, ideal for export in the age before vacuum packaging and airplanes.
Today the tea is made in most provinces of China. Indeed, after the Qing Ming harvest, many tea farmers turn the rest of the year’s new leaves into Gunpowder. As a result there are many styles and many quality levels. The worst Gunpowder is bright yellow and acrid with smoky flavors; the best has charred but assuredly green, vegetal flavors.