Green tea has a long history in Korea. It was brought from China and according to the history of the Three Kingdoms, it had been introduced to Korea by an envoy of Queen Seondeok (632~647) during the Shilla period. The envoy planted the seeds at the slopes of Jirisan Mountain. The original place of Korean green tea is said to be Jangjookjeon at Hwaeom-temple near the town Goorea in the Jirisan Mountains, Jeollanam-do province. However, the historical place Jangjookjeon could not be identified with a real place yet.
Since that time, the custom of drinking tea has been prevalent in Korea. Tea was especially popular among priests and the elite youth corps of the Buddhist Shilla period. Later during the Koryo period (918-1392), the tea culture was further developed. However, the Chosun Dynasty policy of repressing Buddhism (1392-1910) slowed the growth of tea culture in Korea. Near the end of the Confucian Chosun Dynasty, tea drinking declined and tea was mainly used for ceremonies.
Collection of ancient tea cups
Much later, in the 1930s, Japanese colonialists discovered that the area around Boseong, which is located on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, in Jeollanam-do province, is ideal for tea cultivation. In 1939 they established the first commercial tea plantation in Boseong. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Boseong’s tea plantations fell into disuse. In 1957, however, a Korean capitalist purchased the old tea fields and established Daehan Tea Plantation. Soon, more tea plantations were founded nearby, stretching all the way to the coast.
Still today Korean tea is not very well known worldwide. Less than 2% of Korea’s tea production is going into exports. Similar to Japan, the country’s own requirements for tea are very high, whereas the available area for tea cultivation is relatively low. This is why Korea cannot be compared with major tea exporting nations like Sri Lanka, China or India (which export 97%, 27% and 17% respectively of their teas).
Although Korea is a tea-drinking nation and it looks back to a long history of tea ceremonies, the cultivation of its tea is constrained to a small coastal area in the southernmost part of Korea. Due to the warm current from the Japanese Sea, the climatic conditions for cultivating tea are perfect there. Abundant rainfall and mild winters enable the cultivation of high quality types of tea.
Roughly, Korean green tea can be classified into three categories:
- (1) Wild tea from Hadong area
- (2) Green tea from Boseong area
- (3) Green tea from Jeju Island
Wild tea from Hadong
Wild tea grows at the steep hills of the Jirisan Mountain valleys, in Jeollanam-do and Geongsangnam province. Korea’s most famous place for wild tea is the area around Hadong in Geongsangnam. Wild tea has been harvested there for more than 1200 years. Many consider the little town of Hwagae near Hadong as the origin of Korean green tea culture. As the tealeaves grow at an altitude of 400-500 meters between rocks and in steep valleys, there are no chemicals in the soil which could be harmful to the tea and the leaves can only be plucked by hand. This tea is 100% natural, neither fertilizers nor pesticides are used during its production.
Wild tea is processed in the traditional Korean way, by panning the leaves instead of steaming them, which causes its unique character and flavour. It contains more vitamins than industrially processed steamed tea because the tealeaves are not crushed during production.
|hand-processed wild tea (left bowl) and machine-processed tea (right bowl)||yellow wild tea "Hwang Cha" from Hadong|
Organic green tea from Boseong
The largest area of Korean tea cultivation in an unpolluted environment is Boseong. Approximately 40% of Korea’s tea is produced in the area around this town. In this region the soil, humidity and temperature differences between day and night are perfect for cultivating tea. Spread out over some 5.3 million square meters of hillside, the Boseong tea fields are a pleasant mix of terraced rows of green tea bushes and beautiful forests. As Japanese colonialists first founded these terraces, the tea planted in this area comes from seeds of the Japanese Yabukita plant, an improved version of an ancient tea plant from China. Over 80% of tea plantations at Boseong use traditional processing methods, i.e. panning instead of steaming.
The tea plantation "CheongRyong Dawon" is an example of how organic green tea of highest quality is produced in this area. This plantation was established in 1966 on hills reaching heights of 200-250 meters. From the beginning, the tea plants were cultivated in a totally natural way, without using agricultural chemicals, weedicide or chemical fertilizers during the planting and production process. The tea is processed by roasting the leaves according to the traditional panning method, which results in an organic green tea with perfect colour, flavour and taste. Like wild tea, this organic tea is made according to a labour-intensive process without the tealeaves being crushed by machines. Therefore the vitamin content is very high.
|Boseong tea estate||Tea plucking by hand|
|Pan-roasting of tea leaves by hand|
Green tea from Jeju Island
The island Jeju off the Southern coast of Korea counts among the three best tea-growing areas worldwide, together with the areas around Mount Fuji in Japan and Huang Mountain in China. The soil on this volcanic island is rich in nutrients and due to the subtropical climate temperatures rarely dip below freezing.
Tea plantation on Jeju Island
On Jeju Island rather big companies produce tea for the Korean mass market. Machines are used for the plucking and chopping of the tealeaves and chemicals and fertilizers are used during production. Like in Japan, the tealeaves are heated and dried by steam, which is a less labour-intensive production method than the traditional panning method. The steaming of tealeaves during production causes a clear and pure colour and clean flavour. Industrially processed tea has however less efficiency than traditionally processed tea: with one teapot you can produce only two or three infusions.
As the tea from Jeju is machine-made, it is of course less expensive than the tea made by panning from Hadong and Boseong. However, tea from Jeju tastes very good as well and it is of high quality. The biggest and best known tea company on Jeju is Sulloc Cha Company. All teas of this company are strictly controlled for residues.
Traditional Korean tea processing
From ancient times, green tea was processed in a unique way in Korea. In Korean homes the leaves were traditionally treated according to the “Ku-Jung-Ku-Po” method (nine times panning and nine times rubbing) to extract as many tanning agents as possible.
Nowadays the process of roasting the leaves in a pan and rubbing them afterwards is repeated three to seven times, according to the grade. The panning is done in a big wok under high fire (200-300 °C), immediately after the tealeaves have been plucked, to avoid fermentation. The rubbing is done by hand or using a rolling machine. Rubbing is necessary to “hurt” the tealeaves so that they can enfold their optimal flavour during infusion. The most difficult part of the Korean tea processing method is to find the optimal degree of roasting (without burning the leaves in the pan) and rubbing (without hurting the leaves too much). Younger tealeaves require more panning and rubbing because they contain more moisture. This is why the tea of highest quality, which is made of the youngest tealeaves, is also the most expensive one.
When all panning and rubbing processes are finished, the leaves are dried in a drying sack or drying room.
The last step is heating the leaves to finish their drying at a temperature of 100-120°C and to obtain optimal taste and flavour.
Nowadays less than 20% of Korean tea is produced by the labour-intensive panning process. The majority of Korean tea companies steam the tealeaves, which is also the method used in Japan. Large automation systems for steaming allow producing large quantities of tea. Panning is used by rather small companies, which cannot afford to buy the expensive automation systems for steaming.
It would be a pity if due to its labour-intensive production process the traditional panning would vanish from the market. Connoisseurs of Korean tea processed in this way will immediately recognize its high quality and unique flavour. Pan-roasted tea is like a fine wine. Its flavour is slightly sweet and it has an intensive gold-green colour. The tealeaves can be infused long without causing a bitter aftertaste and its efficiency is remarkable: with one teapot you can produce five to six infusions. You can best enjoy this tea by following the Korean tradition to sip it from a bowl, which you hold with both hands.
When looking at a fully soaked tealeaf after its infusion, you can recognise whether it was processed by panning or steaming. When the leaf had been steamed it will not preserve its original shape, but when it had been roasted in a pan you will easily recognise its original shape.
|The smell, colour and taste of pan-roasted Korean tea is like a fine wine||The shape of a pan-roasted tea leaf after infusion|
Classification of Korean green tea
When buying green tea from Korea you will find four different categories, depending on when the leaves are plucked, the season of plucking and the weather conditions. In Korea, tealeaves are plucked three to four times per year.
The first plucking of young "baby leaves" occurs at the beginning of April. This tea is called Woojeon. It is the tea of highest quality, a tender, fine-smelling tea with a soft flavour. It is also the most expensive tea because the quantity of "baby leaves" is limited and they are exclusively plucked by hand.
The main harvest follows a bit later with the Sejack ("first flush") – a wonderfully light, sweet tasting tea with golden-yellow colour.
The tea plucked in late May until beginning of June is of fully mature leaves. These teas are called Jungjack ("Second Flush") und Daejak ("Third Flush"). They have a full character and ochre to amber colour.
Preparation of Korean green tea
As a rule, green tea leaves should not be infused with boiling water. After boiling the water up to 100 °C, the water should be cooled down to 60-70°C before infusion. For high quality green tea leaves from natural production a rather low temperature should be used in order not to boil the leaves too fast and to preserve their vitamin C and amino acid content. An exception is yellow tea, which has to be infused with boiling water to enfold its optimal scent.
The amount of tea per person is about 2 grams and the time of infusion should be 1-2 minutes. As mentioned above, traditionally processed Korean tea has such a high efficiency that it can be infused five to six times, whereas the flavour of industrially processed tea vanishes after the second or third infusion.
Traditional Korean tea ceremony