The Teas of Korea

Since the more northerly regions of South Korea are too cold for the tea plant, the country’s tea gardens cover hillsides in three southern areas:

Jirisan, one of the most important mountains in Korea, found in the south of the country (photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Hadong is the oldest of the cultivated tea regions and has been growing tea since the 9th century CE. Although it is believed that tea was first grown in Boseong as long ago as the 4th century BCE, commercial gardens were not laid out until the first half of the 20th century, and the lower slopes of Jeju were not planted until the 1980s.

Some producers make delicious semi-oxidized hwang-cha, literally “yellow tea” (although it isn’t technically a yellow tea) and small quantities of black — both of which are full of richly-layered and satisfying flavors. But it is the nokcha (녹차) green teas that are the best known and most widely enjoyed. The plucking season starts toward the end of April and the first tiny new buds, picked before the 20th of the month, are called woojeon (우전) or pre-rain teas (also sometimes called gamnong or “sweet harvest”), for they are wonderfully delicate, sweet, and buttery with a powerful umami character. These neat, delicately curved, grey-green buds often measure only around half a centimeter and are called jaskul or “sparrow’s tongue,” because of the resemblance.

A woojeon, or pre-rain tea (photo via Teapedia).

From April 20th to May 5th, buds and leaves that have grown a little bigger are plucked to make the second grade sejak (세작)or “tender” teas, and these are nutty and complex, often with hints of passion fruit and tangerine. Then, as the sun becomes more powerful and the summer rains encourage faster growth, all the buds open into mature leaves for the third pick, jungjak (중작) or “medium” teas. These are stronger, more full-bodied, and carry sweet, spicy notes reminiscent of sun-warmed hay. The fourth and final harvest makes daejak (대작) or “tough” tea, the plainest of the year’s crop.

The best teas are picked by hand, but during the later part of the season, when the leaf quality is not so high, the new shoots are often harvested by machine. Most Korean green teas are made using an unusual combination of steaming and panning to deactivate the enzymes that would otherwise allow oxidation to take place. These teas, called puch’o-cha, are lightly steamed, then pan-fired in large woks or panning machines, cooled, then alternately rolled by hand on bamboo mats or in machines, and finally pan-dried. The alternate rolling and drying is repeated again and again in order to develop the tea’s unique flavor and aroma.

To make panyaro tea, another type of green tea, the freshly plucked leaves are plunged into near-boiling water, drained and then pan-fired in large woks. Once out of the wok, they are rolled, shaped, and pan-dried in the same way as for puch’o-cha. The Japanese method of steaming is also used to manufacture small quantities of sencha-style teas, some of which are finely ground to make matcha.

A Korean Chigarok hwang-cha (photo by Teanerd).

To make hwang-cha, the Korean equivalent to oolong tea, the leaves are first withered and lightly oxidized, then panned in woks or panning machines, rolled to bruise the leaf cells, oxidized inside linen cloths, and then dried. Also called bu bun balhyo cha (부분발효차), these teas are amazingly smooth on the palate with complex, roasted fruity nuances, hints of chocolate, and a subtle, sweet lingering finish.

Korean black tea (balyocha or hong cha) is made from hand-picked young shoots which are lightly roasted, oxidized, partially dried, then rolled and allowed to slowly dry for three to four hours, during which time the tea continues to oxidize. Finally, the leaves are roasted to produce teas that are buttery, supple, rounded, and creamy, with floral hints of rose and geranium, and complex layers of toasted nuts, chocolate, vanilla, and honey.

Guest contributor Jane Pettigrew is a tea historian, writer, consultant, specialist working in the UK and around the world explaining and offering insight into the world of tea. She’s written 15 books and hosts regular master classes and tea tastings. You can find her at www.janepettigrew.com.


Originally published at teforia.com on December 1, 2015.

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