A guide to Korean Tea
Korean tea isn’t the world’s most known. The tradition of Korean tea goes back centuries, with some sources claiming that tea was present in the Korean Peninsula as early as the 2nd century. This tradition flourished, floundered, and was revived several times through Korea’s history, just as the country endured rule changes and foreign wars, all the way through to the modern times. Korean tea is also strongly linked with Buddhism. Each time tea was forced into retreat, it found shelter in Buddhist temples, preserving the tradition for the future. The last restoration is often attributed to Choi Beom-Sul, the head monk of the Dasol-Sa Temple in Jiri Mountains, and reportedly the teacher of all the key figures of the Korean tea revival of the 1970’s.
That revival turned into a boom twenty years later. According to Korea’s Joongang Newspaper, Korean tea production peaked in mid-00’s, following on from the green tea health craze sweeping the health conscious middle classes. Today, the busy streets of Seoul are filled with modern coffee shops, offering iced strawberry lattes to the young and trendy crowd. Tea may not have the same mass pulling power in Korea anymore, but this has not stopped the country from continuing to produce some of the most exciting loose leaf teas around. Our mini guide is an attempt to summarise some of the key characteristics of Korean tea, and is based on our two week research trip undertaken in April 2017.
1. Korean teas – green vs black
Korea is known for its green tea. Despite years of Japanese influence, and reliance on the Japanese Yabukita cultivar on many of its farms, Korean green teas are typically roasted, akin to the Chinese method. This way of stopping oxidation relies on short pan frying in 300C, but as explained later, there are significant variations in the process between each company. Following the roasting, the tea is rolled by hand or machine, and left to dry, after which further roastings may take place.
Most companies have diversified into fully oxidised tea but this black tea is particularly delicate, even by Asian standards. Perhaps this is why some call Korean black tea, a yellow tea, due to its colour. Our tastings of black teas from Hadong area found notes not dissimilar from many of the blacks of the Chinese WuYi mountains, of which we were very pleased. Many farmers have also taken onto ageing of their black teas, with rather interesting results. These methods are by no means industrial and suggest that anyone with a spare clay pot or a green wine bottle can keep their black tea in the cellar.
2. Korean tea names
The names of Korean tea are aligned to the consecutive tea plant flushes, with each of the pickings making a distinct tea. The most prized grade is the first flush, known as Woojeon, typically indicating tea picked before 20 April. However, this is not always the case, as unusual winters can push the cycle back or bring it forward. The key names in Korean tea are:
Woojeon – First flush tea (pictured below). Consists of top bud only or one bud one leaf depending on grade. Typically picked before Gokwoo (Korean Lunar Calendar date: 20 April);
Sejak – Second flush tea. Most likely one bud two leaves, picked after Gokwoo, but before Ipha (Korean Lunar Calendar date: 5-6 May);
Jungjak – Third flush tea. Most likely three leaves of the tea plant. Picked in May.
Daejak – Final flush tea and typically the lowest grade consisting of leaves and stems. Picked late May to early June.
This grading system has been invented for green tea, but is also increasingly being applied to black tea. While Woojeon is typically reserved for green tea, it is perfectly feasible to ask for a black Sejak or Daejak.
So what happens after Daejak? Well, very often, not much. Unlike most tea growing countries harvesting their teas all the way into autumn, Korean farmers often call it a day at the end of May. Tea plants are simply cut below the flush and left to recover. “We take ten months holiday”, said one farmer to our bewildered faces before adding “in reality, we move on to making various fruit tisanes – these are extremely popular in Korea".
3. Korean tea growing areas
There are three principal areas for growing Korean tea. The biggest tea farms are located in Boseong in the Jelloanam-do province, alongside the aptly named Nokcha-Ro (Green Tea Road). Most tea producers in the area have diversified into tourism, offering tea field lodging and tea making tours, as well as an array of tea related products from tea filled chocolates to green tea toothpaste. Little wonder that on a visit to a teahouse of one of the largest local producers we were served a teabag.
The real Korean tea was to be found somewhere else and it was in the Hadong area of the Gyeongsangnam-do province. Located in the Jiri Mountains, this collection of villages is the home to some 200 artisan producers, many of them 3rd generation family enterprises (pictured above is one such garden). Their take on Korean tea is very different, and relies on judgement and experience of a tea master behind each company. Interestingly, no two tea masters apply the same process to the production and something as deceptively uniform as a first flush Woojeon can be picked as buds only or with two leaves, roasted twice or nine times, recommended for brewing at 70 or 90 degrees. This makes Korean teas from the area particularly exciting for exploration, due to the variety of outcomes one will encounter.
Of the three principal Korean tea growing areas, a special mention goes to Jeju Island. This volcanic rock off the coast of Korea is also its prime tourist destination. What makes it interesting is that unlike in Hadong, where every farmer we visited was producing his tea by using the Chinese method of roasting, we have also encountered steamed tea in Jeju, something we did not expect.
4. Korean tea ceremony
The Korean tea ceremony could be the golden compromise between showmanship and convenience. First, the teapot and the cups are bigger than Chinese, which allows a bit more tea out of each brew. Second, there is just less kit to pay attention to than in a gong fu ceremony. The centrepiece of each tea set may not be the teapot, but the pouring vessel, first allowing the freshly boiled water to cool down to the desired temperature, then taking back the same water after the brewing. The teapot has a built in filter, similar to our Japanese Takasuke Kyusu.
The leaf to water ratio is around 3g / 200ml, with correspondingly longer steeping times than in Chinese gong fu. During our trip, most teas were brewed for us up to 4 times, with the first steeping taking up to one minute. Unlike Chinese gong fu, Korean tea masters do not wash their leaves prior to the first steep. They believe that Korean tea is purer than Chinese.
5. Korean tea – Tea in the City offer
We want to offer the best Korean tea available in Korea, which is why are cooperating with the finest farmers in Hadong area. You can browse our Korean tea selection here. We currently offer a limited supply of first flush Korean Woojeon tea, picked, processed and packed at the time of our visit. We will be adding further Korean teas at the end of May and in June.