Teas are grown in an ever-increasing number of countries in the world, primarily India and China. But a number of Asian countries are getting into the act, including South Korea. The first thing to know is that Koreans call just about anything steeped/infused in hot water by the term “tea.” Something to keep in mind here. But they grow some splendid “true tea” (Camellia Sinensis).
Topography and Teas Grown
South Korea’s climate is humid but with a moderating influence from the ocean. Some regions of the country are milder and therefore suited to growing tea. Rainfall follows a monsoonal pattern, with most rain falling in the Summer and very little if any in the Winter. Boseong County is the best known tea growing region in South Korea, accounting until recent years for up to 40% of total tea production there. (Around 2008 some tea farmers saw a big drop off in their sales of green teas as Koreans switched to coffee drinking. Smaller tea farmers have closed, no longer able to earn a profit.)
Korea produces mostly green tea in a very distinctive style that is neither well-known nor widely available in most western countries.
Some grades are:
- Daejak — lower grade, a green tea harvested in late May, and considered a “normal grade” by Korean standards.
- Jungjak — middle grade, made from leaves plucked later in the growing season
- Sejak — higher grade, uses leaves from the third Spring-time plucking,
- Woo-jeon (Wu-jeon, Ujeon) — topmost grade made of small tender leaves plucked at the onset of the tea season, leaves and processed with utmost care and skill into a shape that is well twisted.
Some of the Better-Known Korean True Teas
Green tea is the most common type produced in Korea, with a black tea or two.
- Pucho-Cha — the most common form of hand-processed Korean tea. Tea leaves are transferred about nine times between a hot cauldron and a surface where they are rolled. Then they are laid out to dry for 4-5 hours and returned to the cauldron for a light reheating. The leaves turn grey and emit a pale cloud of intense fragrance.
- Chung-Cha — fresh-plucked leaves are plunged into boiling water briefly to soften them, drained on straw mats for a couple of hours, and then put in a cauldron over a fire to undergo rubbing, rolling, separating, and stirring for over 2 hours. This style of tea has a depth and subtlety to its flavor.
- Ttok-cha — fresh-picked leaves are steamed in an earthenware steamer, pounded to a pulpy mass, shaped into coin-sized cakes, pierced with a cord, and then hung to dry.
- Paryo-cha — while “paryo” means “fermented,” this tea is oxidized instead (basically, it’s a black tea); it tends to be easier to produce and is therefore growing in popularity. The leaves are dried in the sun for 4-8 hours, hand rolled to break the leaf structure and to facilitate oxidizing, after 48 hours are then spread out on the floor of a hot room until dry, then hand crushed, with the dust being sifted out. Often they are stored for several months and undergo a bit of aging. A sample is Dong Cheon Black Tea (fully oxidized, made from the same leaves mainly used for Sejak, steeps a beautiful, luxurious red liquid with a rich and sweet flavor that has a toasty molasses or burnt caramel note).
- Dong Cheon — a tea manufacturer that uses older growth, semi-wild tea bushes near Ssanggyae Temple in Hwagae Valley, Handong County. They also use the Jeong-cha method of production which involves plunging the freshly picked, supple tea leaves in near boiling water. After which, the leaves are shaped and dried simultaneously in the heated iron cauldron without being removed until they are finished. The result is a tea that carries deeper, more augmented flavors and a heavier body. Some of their teas include:
- Hwagae Valley Ujeon — top quality silvery green color with fresh, slightly sweet vegetal aroma.
- Daejak — affordable and highly satisfying green tea, rich, warm, complex.
- Sejak — fragrant, warm, very aromatic, luscious mouth feel.
- Jungjak — richly flavored and aromatic, a satisfying mouth feel.
Why So Many Other Types of Infusions?
A lot of the “teas” consumed in South Korea are not true teas (that is, they are not steeped from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant). One explanation has to do with Buddhism versus Confucianism. At first, Buddhism took hold in Korea, but in the 14th century Confucianism began to supplant it and eventually became the national religion. Since drinking green and black teas was closely related in their minds with Buddhism, it was virtually abandoned with the change. They also started focusing on health properties of various plants and infusions made from them. Today, such medicinal “teas” are a staple.
Some of the Better-Known Korean Infusions
- Mogwa-cha — a winter favorite made of Chinese quince.
- Insam cha — made from ginseng, either fresh, dried, or a red steamed version.
- Saenggang cha — made from ginger root that is washed, not peeled, and then sliced and stored with honey for a few weeks, then both the honey and ginger root are added to hot water.
- Omijacha — Tea made from dried fruits of Schisandra chinensis. Has all five distinct flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent.
- Bori cha — roasted barley tea
- Oksusu cha — roasted corn tea
- Hyeonmi cha — roasted rice tea
- Gukhwa cha — wild chrysanthemum flowers are preserved in honey for a month or so, and then mixed with hot water
- Pakha cha — peppermint leaves
Don’t miss our next stop on this virtual world tea tour!
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