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TEA IN KOREA

Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, South Korea
Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, South Korea
Tea fields on Jeju Island, South Korea
Tea fields on Jeju Island, South Korea

The Republic of Korea is 30th among the world’s 35 tea-producing countries and barely produces 100 metric tons of tea a year, grown on little more than 8,100 acres, generating a modest $131 million in both domestic and exported sales. Koreans consume more than three-quarters of its modest production.

By contrast, in 2017, China grew 2.5 billion tons of tea on 4.4 million acres and India harvested 1 billion tons of tea from 1.3 million acres, with both countries receiving billions of dollars of income domestically and internationally.

With such a tiny production, how have Korean green teas (nokcha) become sought-after? Perhaps this not-so-secret choice is because of the beauty in its leaves, small and intensely green, redolent with the care of hand-harvesting and careful processing in the oldest traditions. Or because they have an equally intensely vegetal sweet flavor. This lovely tea, which is as relaxing as it is flavorful, no doubt contributes to why Korea is often called “The Land of the Morning Calm.”


A MICRO GLIMPSE AT KOREAN TEA HISTORY

Korea owes much of its tea history and culture to China and Japan yet it has added enough of its own culture and personality to develop a distinctive, gracious tea ceremony and, of course, a modest albeit growing industry.

Korea first imported tea from China in the 7th and 8th centuries and used it first, like China did, as a medicinal herb. Korea also developed a green tea powder for both ceremonial and religious offerings, not unlike matcha for the Japanese chanoyu.

Korean tea production did not begin until the 9th century when Kim Taeryom, a royal envoy, was sent to China to fetch seeds of the Camellia sinensis plant. The seeds were planted in Gyeongnam Province near the Ssanggyesa monastery on Mt. Jiri. A Korean tea culture began, first with the aristocracy and Buddhist monasteries, and then later with the public. The popularity of tea inspired the celebrated Korean celadon pottery industry and the creation of functional and artisanal utensils, pots, and cups for its newly adopted tea ceremony developed during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392.)

During the subsequent Joseon Dynasty, Buddhist rites were replaced by Confucian ones and tea was replaced by wine to erase any connection to Buddhism. More harshly, many tea fields destroyed and high taxes decimated most other tea production.

Throughout its subsequent history, the country suffered a series of conflicts which destroyed the cultural memory of tea. Korean tea culture nearly vanished completely until the latter part of the 20th century when both t tea production and a new, growing appreciation of Korean culture were influenced by both artists and scholars eager to resurrect the best of their cultural memories.


THE KOREAN WAY OF TEA

One reason attributed to the most recent surge in tea and tea culture in Korea may be the teachings of Ch’oi Pom-Sul, author of “The Korean Way of Tea,” the first book on tea published in modern-day Korea. He referred to locally-grown green teas as “The Dew of Enlightened Wisdom” or Panyar-o, which is also the name of the style of tea ceremony he taught. His followers at the Panyar-o Institute in Seoul continue to attract, and educate, new generations of tea drinkers in the Zen of tea or Hyo Dang. Brother Anthony of Taize and Kyeong-hee Hong have produced an English-language of the book.

Interest in, and consumption of, Camellia sinensis in Korea continues to grow with industrious companies incorporating green tea in other products, from baked and savory foods to beauty products like face and foot masks.

Still, green teas are consumed nowhere in the amounts of the three most popular beverages: bori-cha (roasted barley) osu-cha (roasted corn,) and ginseng, made by infusing hot water with slices of the gnarly root used in Asian cooking. Here in the U.S., these tisanes are readily available yet Korean green tea sources remain scarce, all the more reason to try them whenever possible.


PRIMARY KOREAN GREEN TEAS

Korea is a peninsula and lies between China and Japan. Tea is grown in at least four distinct areas and the two best known areas are the largest island off the coast, Jeju Island, just south of the westernmost end of the peninsula, and Mt. Jiri. Jeju Island was formed entirely by volcanic eruptions and it is that volcanic soil and humid subtropical climate that made it ideal for growing tea. Most of the Korean teas exported to America come from Jeju. Other tea-growing areas are Boseong in Jeollanam-do and Hadong in Gyeongsangnam-do. The most commonly offered Korean green teas are:

Ujeon (First Pluck) includes the buds only which produce a sweet bouquet. These are plucked April 20 or 21 during the first spring rain known as Gogu. This is an exquisitely light tea with a lovely mouth feel. Hand-harvested. Ujeon may be spelled woojean or woojian.

Sejak (Second Pluck) includes both the bud and leaf, and is harvested May 5 or 6 during the period known as after the rain or Ipha. This is the most commonly exported Korean green tea, very vegetal and intensely green and has a pleasantly smooth mild astringency. Sejak means sparrow’s small beak and refers to the size of the leaves. Hand-harvested.

Daejak includes mature leaves and is a fourth plucking. This is a rougher, heartier tea yet with the distinctive Korean edge of sweetness. Daejak means sparrow’s large beak and refers to the larger sized leaves.

Other harvests are in May and June, but exports of these are rare. Preparation should be approached like the more well-known Chinese and Japanese greens, only 1 to 3 minutes in 180° F. water. Korean green teas can be re-steeped with fully nuanced flavor with each cup


KOREA’S POWDERED GREEN TEA

Malcha or Garulcha is powdered green tea made in the style of Japanese matcha. All malcha is made from fine green tea leaves that are steamed, pan fired then ground down to a powder. To be labeled malcha, the leaves must have been shade grown partially or fully, and may or may not be chopped or rolled to facilitate grinding which is done with a special stone mill which contributes to the smoothness of the foam. Malcha is the Korean word that combines matcha from the Japanese and muocha from Chinese and literally translates to “powdered or ground down” tea.

Malcha also plays a part in the Korean tea ceremony, Suyangdado. Like its Japanese counterpart, it is performed to “cultivate the mind and create an atmosphere of peace.” It also replicates some similar protocol. After heating the water and preparing the tea, the host, who can be male or female, pours each guest her own small cup. The guest takes the cup and holds it at the base of her left hand, turns the right side a little toward her with her right hand. It is only then that she savor it by drinking it all in 3 to 5 sips.

Sweets served may include rice cake balls which are soft and chewy and usually covered with sesame seeds and yakbak (aka yaksik) a snack made from sweet rice, chestnuts, jujube dates, and pine nuts. Flavored with brown sugar, cinnamon, and soy sauce. These are available at Asian food shops along with nori-covered dried rice snacks that have a savory tang, among others.


KOREAN OOLONG, BLACK, and PUERH

Some small tea farms in Korea are also processing oolong and black teas, but their quantities are so small and distribution in the U.S. is uneven at best. The Korean-style oolong, is called yellow tea or Hwangcha. Korea’s version of black tea, Hangcha or red tea as the Chinese refer to it, is also known as Jaekseolcha when grown in Hadong in South Gyeongsang Province.

Puerh-style brick teas include Tteokchaor Byeongcha (cake tea) or the Borim-baengmocha variety named for the Borim Temple in Jangheung, South Jeolla Province. Green moss coin (Cheongtaejeon,) is made in the shape of Joseon coins, with holes, and two money teas, Doncha and Jeonngcha, are styles of brick tea which reflects back to when bricks of tea were formed for currency and, some aver, as an easy way to transport tea over long journeys.

These teas, too, should be brewed as you would their Chinese counterparts.

The Korean teas mentioned are grown in South Korea, however, North Korea has had some limited albeit successful attempts at tea growing. Because it is a closed country, with no Internet commerce facility, it is rare to access them although reports from a lucky few say the teas are flavorful and credible examples of primarily green teas.

A NOTE ON SPELLING: Like many Asian words, there are few standardizations in English, so we opted for those most frequently used in the U.S.