Gunpowder tea is a type of green tea consumed all over the world. It is a unique tea that is often affordable and is sold by most major tea brands.
Its western name is said to come from its resemblance to grains of gunpowder, but it may also come from the Chinese phrase gāng pào de, which translates as “fresh brew” and sounds a lot like “gunpowder”.
What is Gunpowder Tea?
In China, this tea is known as zhū chá, which roughly translates to “pearl tea” but should not be confused with boba tea, which is a type of sweet, milky tea that is also known as “pearl tea”. Gunpowder tea is produced in China, where green tea leaves are rolled into small balls (similar to the production of oolong tea), which allows for safer transportation while also helping retain more of the unique flavour and fragrance that green tea possesses.
The process of producing gunpowder tea typically includes withering and firing, whereby the tea leaves are gradually stripped of their moisture before they are rolled. This process can be partly or entirely completed by machine, but some producers still use traditional methods—picking, firing, and rolling by hand.
Gunpowder tea is not flavoured like jasmine tea, and it typically contains only one type of tea. It is believed to have first been produced over 1500 years ago in the Zhejiang province in Eastern China, a region that produces more tea than any other and is responsible for the famous Longjing green tea (which is also known as “dragon well tea”).
These days, gunpowder tea is produced all over China and you’ll also find it in other major green tea–producing countries, particularly regions known for growing both oolong and green tea.
Benefits of Gunpowder Tea
Green tea is one of the healthiest beverages in the world; it is rich in antioxidants and has been linked to a host of health benefits. As discussed in our guide to the benefits of green tea, regular consumption is thought to reduce the risk of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, neurological disease, and more. It may also help to stimulate weight loss and improve mood.
Gunpowder Tea versus Green Tea
Gunpowder tea is basically green tea, so you’ll get many of the same antioxidants and benefits. Contrary to what some people seem to believe, gunpowder tea is not a stronger, healthier, or otherwise enhanced version of green tea and basically provides the same benefits.
If you want something that contains more antioxidants on a gram-for-gram basis, take a look at matcha tea. It’s a highly concentrated form of green tea that is consumed whole, offering the user more antioxidants and more potential health benefits.
As far as caffeine is concerned, there are similar amounts of this stimulant in both gunpowder tea and the average cup of green tea. The average cup of premium gunpowder tea brewed for several minutes will provide between 30mg and 40mg of caffeine, which is more than white tea but less than black tea and coffee.
There are few side effects to consuming gunpowder tea. It is possible to be allergic to this tea, and some studies have linked green tea consumption to an increased risk of throat and oesophageal cancer. However, these studies have focused on Chinese patients that also smoke and/or drink, and while there have been some suggestions that regular consumption of scalding hot tea can play a role in increasing this risk, it’s worth noting that Chinese drinkers tend to drink their tea hotter than we do here in the United Kingdom.
If you’re particularly worried about this risk, no matter how slight or obscure it is, simply take a look at the brewing tips mentioned below and keep that water below boiling. You can also wait for it to cool before you drink it.
This is typically a non-issue with black tea consumption, because the average Brit adds a splash of ice-cold milk to their tea, which helps to cool it down. But milk is not added to green or gunpowder tea.
How to Brew it
Gunpowder tea is best brewed with 80-degree water. There are a few ways you can do this with a common kettle. Either wait for it to boil and cool down; grab it and pour just before it reaches boiling point; or, better yet, add some cold water to a brewed kettle. It doesn’t need to be exact, so don’t worry about measuring the temperature—just make sure it’s a little off the boil.
Gunpowder tea, and green tea in general, is more temperamental than black tea, and if it sits for too long in boiling water, it can become very bitter and unpleasant. It is possible to get a good cup of gunpowder tea with boiling water if you make sure it only brews for a couple minutes, but the best way to get a consistently delicious brew is to use 80-degree water (give or take 5 degrees) and let it steep for at least 3 minutes.
You can add sugar or honey to taste, but gunpowder tea is best enjoyed without milk. It’s not a crime to add milk if you prefer it—to each their own—but it’s generally not recommended, as the delicate flavours of the tea will be lost.
What Does it Taste Like?
If you're not big on the taste of green tea, but you like oolong and black tea, then we recommend giving gunpowder tea a go. The withering and firing techniques produce a tea that is often slightly darker, richer, and more intense than the average cup of green tea. It’s still not heavily oxidised or fermented, so it won’t possess the sort of complexity that you get from the dark and heavy pu’er tea, or even from a light and fresh Darjeeling, but there are some unique flavours there.
We like to think of its having elements of Lapsang Souchong and oolong, while retaining the freshness and floral notes you expect from non-oxidised teas.
The Best Gunpowder Green Tea
We don’t sell gunpowder tea in the Shelgo Tea online store, but we’ve consumed our fair share. We recommend checking out some premium brands here in the UK and seeing what varieties they have to offer. If you’re lucky enough to have a tea store near you, then drop by and sample the fragrance and taste for yourself.
A fresh, dark, and rich gunpowder tea that has been organically grown is best. Look for the Soil Association label, and buy it in loose leaf form if you can. If you want a truly premium variety, then look for one that was grown in the Wuyi region, the home of great tea and a region that still produces this beverage using traditional methods.
You can expect to pay between £7.50 and £10 for 100 grams of premium gunpowder tea.