Gunpowder tea is one of the oldest and most traditional teas in all of China. The honey-like sweetness and smoky finish make gunpowder tea one of the world’s most popular teas: from its origin in Zhejiang Province in China, all the way to the Maghreb Region of North Africa, where it is used to make the traditional (and tooth-achingly sweet) Tuareg mint tea. While gunpowder tea is usually made from green tea, oolong varieties also exist. There is much debate over the etymology of gunpowder tea. The most common explanation is that gunpowder tea closely resembles the dark grey-green pellet shape of China’s traditional gunpowder. Some suggest that the name comes from the way in which the rolled leaves “pop” open when placed in hot water. Another common theory is that the name can be attributed to the tea’s signature smoky flavor.
Perhaps most interesting (if patently false) is the idea that the Mandarin Chinese phrase gāng pào de (剛泡的) or “freshly brewed,” closely mimics the English word “gunpowder”. In Chinese, there is no debate. The tea is simply referred to as zhū chá (珠茶), which means “pearl tea” or “bead tea.”
Gunpowder tea was first made in the late Tang Dynasty (618-907), around the same time that actual gunpowder was invented in China, and it was crucial in the progression from compressed brick tea to the loose leaves that we use today. The rolled shape is functional rather than aesthetic: since surface area is minimized, the pellet form allows for the tea to ship compactly and retain more of its flavor and aroma, The rolled leaves are also less susceptible to damage and breakage, especially when compared to fragile open loose tea leaves.
Gunpowder’s hardy tea leaves kept fresh during long trade routes, likely explaining how gunpowder tea ended up becoming such a ubiquitous beverage in Northern Africa, and indeed a large percentage of the tea traded around the world during the 1700’s and 1800’s consisted of gunpowder tea. Even in the colonial United States, gunpowder tea was one of the few options for tea drinkers
In order to make gunpowder tea, the leaves are gathered and then allowed to dry. The tea pickers must be greatly skilled, as torn leaves will not roll uniformly. The tea is generally made during the summer and fall tea seasons, when the tea leaves are more mature and pliable, and thus easier to roll. In some areas, smaller amounts of gunpowder tea are made with the early-season spring leaves, creating a subtler brew.
The dried leaves are then steamed and rolled into a rounded shape, before being dried again to remove any surface moisture. Traditionally, these tea pellets were rolled by hand, but now most gunpowder teas are formed by mechanized tumblers. The highest and most expensive grades of gunpowder tea are still hand-rolled. These higher grades are rolled into much smaller pellets, and are sold under the name “Imperial Pinhead.”
Gunpowder tea makes a great beverage hot or iced. The leaves can be used for multiple infusions, and it is quite fascinating to watch them gradually unfold through successive steepings.
If you’d like to enjoy something a bit different, you can try your hand at making Moroccan Tuareg mint tea at home using gunpowder tea. The traditional method is incredibly complex, but a simpler version can be made quite easily: Simply throw in a generous handful of mint leaves into the pot along with your tea leaves. You can also boil the filtered tea with mint leaves to create a stronger mint taste.
Tuareg tea is usually incredibly sweet. Traditional recipes call for about five teaspoons of sugar for every teaspoon of tea leaves. Honey can also be used to make a delicious, if less authentic version.
In Morocco, Tuareg tea is poured into small glasses from a great height, often up to a few feet. This process aerates and cools down the tea, and also creates a lovely frothy head. I always seem to end up spilling hot tea all over the kitchen whenever I attempt this, but with any luck, you are a bit more adept than I am. Also, the process is much easier if you use a proper Moroccan teapot (berrad), with its long tapered spout for easier pouring.
Gunpowder tea is a great beverage for the tea historian and tea enthusiast alike. We are sure that you will enjoy its robust smoky flavor as a hot drink to keep you warm in the winter, or as a refreshing iced tea to cool you off in the summer.