Gunpowder tea is green tea that is rolled into small pellets resembling the gunpowder pellets that were used in earlier times to load into cannons. The tea precedes cannons in origin, and the way it is made dates back to approximately the 7th century CE, during the Tang Dynasty rule in China. In China, gunpowder tea is known by several different names, like pinyin, and zhu cha, and is principally manufactured in the Southeastern province of Zhejiang.
Today the process of making gunpowder tea is mostly automated, but the tea used to be made by hand. Some very high grade, and very expensive tea is still hand rolled, but most of what is found in stores or tea specialty shops is machine rolled. Quality gunpowder tea should be shiny. If it is not, the tea is probably older and will taste inferior.
Though China is the main manufacturer of gunpowder tea, the tea became extremely popular in Taiwan in the 19th century. Most Taiwanese drink tea grown and formed in Keelung, a port city located on the northern coast.
A few other places in the world particularly enjoy gunpowder tea. Sri Lankans grow green tea at high altitudes, which creates subtle changes in the tea's taste. A Moroccan tea ritual employs gunpowder tea flavored with mint. Anyone attending one of these rituals should be certain to drink at least two cups, since to do less than that insults the host.
This form of tea is not roasted, and many claim it has a fresh grassy taste. To brew the best cup, consider about 2-3 pellets per cup of tea. It's fun to watch the tea unfold when the hot water hits it. Some say that it "explodes" like gunpowder. Many love this green tea iced, too, and find the fresh leaf taste very refreshing.
Gunpowder tea may occasionally be sold as pearl tea, but even in the US "gunpowder" is a more commonly used name. The tea has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity in the US so it may be found in fairly large grocery stores. If not, it is easily ordered on the Internet or purchased in Asian markets, international food and imports markets, and specialty foods stores. Tea drinkers who happen to have a Chinatown nearby can purchase the tea in bulk, which gives the best opportunity to inspect its shine and freshness.