|The Teas of South Korea-Coming Back
From Near Total Devastation
|After centuries of having their country and its tea and tea drinking culture brut-
alized and attacked to the point of near total devastation, Korea's tea industry
is being slowly rebuilt and revitalized. Korea's traditional tea and tea drinking
culture is believed to have begun during the Gaya Kingdom (today part of
South Korea), around 48 AD, brought by monks returning from studying at
China's great Buddhist schools and temples.
|While today much of Korea's tea is grown in large
commercial tea gardens and machine harvested,
there is still a small amount of hand-plucked leaf
from wild, indigenous plots of tea, some of which
were planted centuries earlier.
One story tells of King Heungdeok (r. 826-836)
planting tea seeds on Jiri Mountain, where today
large areas of wild tea still grow and are harvest-
ed to make small batches of artisan tea.
For the most part,
South Korea's tea in-
dustry today is fairly
modern with most tea
gardens developed in
the 20th century, ex-
|cept for the temple gardens located in Hadong County. The Japan-
ese developed many lush, cultivated tea gardens during their occupation of Korea, beginning in
1910 through its independence at the end of WWII in 1945. This is one reason the rows of tea
are rounded like those in Japan, rather than flat. But that's where the
similarities end, because South Korea's tea is uniquely theirs.
All of South Korea's tea plantations lie in the southern part of the country
to the south of Chonju, with small areas of tea growing on the slopes of
Chirisan, and large industrial sized tea estates in Bosong near Kangjin,
and on the slopes of Wolch'ul-san in the southwest.
Mostly machine-plucked tea comes from the counties of Haenum,
Yeongam, and Jangseong in southern Jeollanam Province. In Yeongam
county lies Cheju-do Island, the largest of nearly 2,000 small islands that
lie off the eastern and western coasts of South Jeolla and Mount Wolchul.
centuries ago monks planted tea seeds in
the hills surrounding the Ssanggyesa Tem-
ple. Today tea fields surround the now
famous Buddhist temples in South
Gyeongsang Province, Hadong County,
and the narrow Hwagae Valley and its
mountainsides, especially Jiri Mountain.
The leaf from these tea fields is hand-
plucked from "wild" tea bushes consider-
ed indigenous, descendants of the origin-
al tea bushes planted from seed centuries
The artisan made Hadong area teas are
grown without pesticides, made in small
batches, and are quite costly and hard to
find outside of South Korea.
Like China's Qing Ming and Japan's shincha teas, South Korea's
teas are plucked according to the established dates of the sea-
sonal divisions of the lunar calendar. The best teas are those
plucked earliest which are called ujeon. This first plucking occurs
just before koku, around April 20, and consists of a bud and one
leaf. The second plucking of Sejak occurs during Ipha around
May 6, and consists of a bud and two leaves. The third plucking
has no bud, called Jungjak, and occurs during Soman, around May 21.
The best teas are plucked in the first two months of
the season. After that the leaves become larger and
more course and the intense flavor and fragrance
diminishes markedly. The fourth plucking, Deajak is
for South Korea's ordinary green tea, plucked during the summer months.
Mostly green teas are produced, called Nokcha which means simply "green tea." There are two
different types made - Puch'o-cha, which is the most common, and the less common Chung-ch'a.
To make Puch'o-cha the leaves must first be de-enzymned within
24 hours of plucking to reduce the moisture content. This is done
in the factory by placing the leaf inside a large revolving drum
which blows warm air over it. With smaller batches of handmade
artisan tea the leaves are placed in a hot iron pan set over a
wood or gas fire and tossed, similar to the process for China's
pan fired green teas.
Next the leaves are removed from the heat of the pan and placed on a straw or bamboo mat
where they're vigorously hand rolled and shaped. The shaping is usually done on a bamboo or
straw mat to help aid in curling the leaf. It is then hand-separated to declump the moist leaves,
sticky from the leaf juices.
After resting for a short period of time following the initial rolling
step, the leaf is once more returned to the hot pan and again dri-
ed. These two steps of drying and rolling are repeated up to nine
more times until the leaf is nearly completely dry.
To make the less common Chung-ch'a style green tea, the freshly
plucked leaves are briefly placed into near boiling water, then re-
moved and allowed to drain before being placed in the tea firing
pans. The leaf remains in the hot wok-like pans where the shap-
ing and drying are done simultaneously, with the leaf constantly twisted, turned, and moved so
as not to burn, until nearly dry.
| A third variety of green tea that is even less common is called Jengjae-cha. It is made
by steaming the leaf for 30 to 40 seconds then drying it, a method similar to Japan's
sencha production, resulting in the leaf remaining a bright green color. Jengjae-cha is
similar in flavor, color, style, and character to Japan's sencha tea.
Even though the processing methods are similar to China's pan fired and Japan's
green teas, South Korea's green teas have a flavor all their own, with a sweet,
biscuity aroma and taste, and a clear amber infusion. If you find a source for
purchasing South Korea's artisan handmade green teas consider yourself lucky. Only small amounts of handmade
teas are made and the limited supply makes it very expensive when you can find it. But these flavorful, quality teas
make it well worth the effort to try and find. Enjoy.
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