Gunpowder tea production dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907) but it was first introduced to Taiwan in the 1800s. Although the individual leaves were formerly rolled by hand, today most gunpowder tea is rolled by machines (though the highest grades are still rolled by hand). Rolling tea leaves into gunpowder tea renders the leaves less susceptible to physical damage and allows them to retain more of their flavor and aroma. In addition, it allows certain types of oolong teas to be aged for decades if they are cared for by being occasionally roasted.
When buying gunpowder tea it is important to look for shiny pellets, which indicate that the tea is relatively fresh.
The origin of the English term may come from the Mandarin Chinese term gāng paò de (剛泡的), simply meaning "freshly brewed," which sounds like the English word "gunpowder." More likely, however, the English name derives from the tea's similarity in appearance to actual gunpowder: greyish, dark pellets of irregular shape used as explosive propellant for early guns. The name may also have arisen from the fact that the grey-green leaf is tightly rolled into a tiny pellet and "explodes" into a long leaf upon being steeped in hot water. Another explanation is that the tea also can have a smoky flavor.
Gunpowder tea is exported to the Maghreb where it is used in the preparation of traditional North African mint tea. The Moroccan tea ritual is at the heart of any social gathering, from an informal visit to a neighbour to lavish soirees with dignitaries. A minimum of two cups need to be drunk so as not to offend the host.