No one can truly say how many varieties of tea there are, at least not with any degree of accuracy. Suffice to say that it’s a very large number – in the hundreds, at least, and perhaps even into the thousands. Even if you discount the other five types (black, oolong, puerh, yellow, white) and zero in on green tea, you’ll still find numerous varieties, many of them quite distinctive.
But there are probably few types of green tea as distinctive as the variety known as gunpowder tea. Gunpowder tea is well known for its small tightly rolled leaves and its faintly smoky flavor, which is quite unusual, so much so that it may be an acquired taste for some.
Gunpowder is one of a handful of tea types (lapsang souchong, Earl Grey, to name a few) that yours truly has never managed to actually acquire a taste for, but there are numerous other fans of this popular variety who beg to differ with this assessment.
Gunpowder tea comes by its unusual name, according to Mary Lou and Robert Heiss, writing in The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook, “because the finished tea resembles the steel-grey-green color and pellet shape of the propellant gunpowder. Additionally, the ball-shaped finished tea pellets gently “pop open” when exposed to the steeping water, and the stimulant nature of tea could be construed as a pun on the word propellant.”
As the Heiss’s note, gunpowder tea was a Chinese invention, as was (for better or worse) gunpowder itself. These days China’s Zhejiang Province is one the primary regions responsible for turning out the world’s gunpowder tea supply. It is also produced outside of China, in modest amounts, in such places as Sri Lanka and Taiwan, and is a staple beverage in North African countries, like Morocco, where it is served with hefty doses of mint and sugar.
And while gunpowder, the tea, certainly hasn’t had nearly the impact on human affairs as its namesake, it’s a great one to sample the next time you’re looking for a green tea that’s a little bit off the beaten path.