Gunpowder tea (also called Zhu Cha) is believed to have been first produced during the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) in Zhejiang provenience of China. The withered and steamed green tea leaves were balled by hand into small pellets before being dried. Its English name came from its appearance as the tea pellets after drying look like shiny greenish-black pellets, much like gunpowder. This is truly an art form given that they are balling a whole tea leaf into a very small pellet. It makes me wonder why they would go to the trouble to do such a thing. This is a case where necessity really does prove to be the mother of invention.
Gunpowder Tea and the Tang Dynasty
The capital of the Tang Dynasty was in what is now present day Xian, in the Shaanxi provenience almost 1,400 kilometers (869 miles) inland from Zhejiang province. Trying to get your tea to the emperor was not going to be easy. It is thought that the tea was balled to allow it to make the trip to the capital, as something unique for the emperor, while maintaining its flavor. One of the most famous Gunpowder teas, Hui Bai, or tribute tea, was made exclusively for the emperor. It is made with small young leaves that are rolled into loose pellets that, when brewed, release a pale yellow liquor with a sweet herbal flavor.
Balled Teas (Gunpowder and Oolong)
The art of rolling tea leaves into balls came into being almost a thousand years before the partial oxidation that makes Oolong tea possible. Most modern drinkers of tea think of Oolongs when presented with balled tea leaves, but those were far from the first teas prepared in this fashion. Taiwan, which has the most famous balled Oolongs, did not apply this technique to commercial tea until well into the 1800s. Today Gunpowder Tea is not simply the domain of China as other countries, like Sri Lanka, also produce their own variations.
Modern Gunpowder is rolled with machines with only the finest quality teas still being rolled by hand. These hand rolled Gunpowder teas rarely leave Zhejiang provenience due to the high demand for the tea locally.