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 the elixir of immortality. Instead, what they concocted is what we call today ‘black powder’. Whether or not the early testers attained immortality is a matter of speculation!
Gunpowder tea is so named due to the logical play-on-words that exists between Gunpowder tea and gunpowder the propellant: the finished tea resembles the steel-grey/green colour and pellet shape of the propellant gunpowder. Additionally, the ball-shaped finished tea pellets gently ‘pop open’ when exposed to the brewing 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 Green teas.
Gunpowder tea is among the easiest and most forgiving of Green teas to infuse. It is simple to measure, will tolerate a range of water temperature, and is fun 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 most commonly for the minted tea of Moroccan and other North African cuisines. Not only does it travel to and store well in a hot and dry climate, but it steeps slowly, in tandem with the mint.
Formerly rolled by hand, it is now manufactured primarily by the use of machinery (rollers and tumblers) that roll and shape the leaf tea into the exquisite little pellets that we then infuse into liquid tea. Gunpowder tea was shaped into its pellet form originally for quality and keeping purposes, as it shipped more compactly and retained its fresh flavour 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 manufactured during the summer and fall tea seasons, so that it has the expected more-mature flavour, and because it requires leaf that is a bit larger in size (and is more pliable) so that it can be rolled and shaped properly.
There are many grades (sizes) of Gunpowder tea, the finest being the smallest, as with most tea. The smallest size and highest grade is marketed as Imperial Pinhead.
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.
Steep 2-3 infusions at 2 minutes each.
Water temperature should be 170° – 180° F