Korean Green Tea

Receiving new tea—especially something you’ve never tried—is always exciting!

Teas Unique setLast month, my daughter and son-in-law surprised me with a gift set of green tea from Teas Unique of South Korea.

Although tea has been grown in Korea for ages, I’ve had only South Korean tisanes (ginger, ginseng, citron, and barley), and one actual tea, the phenomenal South Korea Seogwang Sencha from TeaHaus. Based on the quality of the sencha, I’ve always wanted to try more from this small country.

Tea in Korea

Tea was embraced early in Korea, in 48 CE, but it went in and out of favor depending on the dominant religious beliefs.

The beverage was the most popular during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392 CE), with prized green-glazed celadon ceramics being produced during the same period. Tea ceremonies were woven into national, religious, and diplomatic affairs. Four of the state’s five rites included the tea ceremony: auspicious and congratulatory ceremonies, funerals, and hospitality (Nishimura et al.).

Things changed when Confucianism overtook Buddhism. Celadons, considered extravagant, were replaced by white porcelain ware. Though the elites continued to drink tea, and tea ceremonies still took place, “tea survived as ritual rather than as ordinary practice” (Barnes 2014:43). Less tea was produced, and, if Wikipedia can be believed, there’s even a story that Seonjo, Joseon’s king in the late 1500s, stated that “We do not have a tea drinking custom in our country.”

Happily, tea gardens have been rejuvenated in the past decades, and excellent tea is again being produced in South Korea.

Green Tea Grades

close up_labeledIn South Korea, green tea is classified by the harvest date and bud/leaf maturity, one of many ways that tea can be graded. China, for example, uses a system based on the style, shape, and production process of the tea leaves.

In Darjeeling and Assam, the “first flush” means the first harvest, which takes place in early spring, when only the buds and newest (immature) leaves are plucked. The leaves are rated from OP (orange pekoe) to SFTGFOP (special finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe).

In this system, OP refers to the most immature leaf, or the first leaf down from the bud. (The second leaf is pekoe, the third pekoe-souchong; read more here.) Although you might expect that “orange pekoe” would be synonymous with high quality, that is not the case; it just refers to leaf position.

So in South Korea, the four grades of green tea are based on when and which leaves are plucked. But, far more charming, these grades are compared to a sparrow’s beak!

sparrow and tea lvs

Called jaksul nokcha, or sparrow’s beak green tea, the “name derives from the shape of the iconic ‘bud and two leaves’ hand harvested from the tips of new growth of the camellia sinensis [tea] bush” (Teas Unique).

The four grades, then, are:

  • Ujeon or before the first spring rain, first pluck (before April 20), bud
  • Sejak or sparrow’s small beak, second pluck (after April 20), bud and first leaf
  • Joongjak or sparrow’s medium beak, third pluck (around May 20), young leaves
  • Daejak or sparrow’s large beak, fourth pluck (around June 21), mature leaves

Any of these can be a first-flush tea, even if it’s not a first pluck, according to Teas Unique, thus differing from the Darjeeling/Assam definition.

Tea-growing Regions

Korea tea regionsThere are four tea-growing regions in South Korea, all located in the southern part of the country.

The tea plants that grow wild in Mt. Jiri come from the original plants of the 800s, when Kim Taeryom planted Camellia sinensis seeds—smuggled? from China—in the Ssanggyesa Monastery. Some of today’s plants are hundreds of years old.

During their occupation of Korea in the 1900s, the Japanese established tea plantations in Boseong, thus beginning commercial production in the country—producing it for Japan, however. Today, Boseong’s tea happily has a more global reach.

Jeonnam is relatively new to tea, being founded in 1965. Because this area is somewhat cooler, matcha is produced here.

Unlike the other regions, whose climate is temperate, volcanic Jeju Island is subtropical. The combination of soil and climate are great for tea; the island, therefore, is “the fastest growing region of tea production in Korea today” (Teas Unique).

Depending on how you view things, the current situation as described by Teas Unique has both benefits and drawbacks:

Jeju Island tea plantations are dominated by Seoul-based conglomerates who have established huge tea operations based on automation, machine picking and Japanese steaming methods. These highly commercial operations have been aggressive in exporting their product and as a result, Jeju Island green teas are the most commonly available and the most well known to American tea drinkers.

Endnote

My gift box contains green tea from Boseong, Mt. Jiri, and Jeju Island, all orthodox first-flush teas, ranging from small to large beak. I can’t wait to try them all!

Koreans, like the Chinese and Japanese, wrote poems about tea, especially during tea gatherings. When I’m contemplating a particularly lovely tea, it’s easy to identify with Yi Je-hyon’s (1287–1367) words about his tea, with “Its clean fragrance . . . its soft light, like frost in the midst of the woods. . . . The tea cup emitting a web of flowers.”

teacups with tea


For a bit more about the history of tea in Korea, see my earlier post, Tea in South Korea Had a Circuitous History.

Sources:
–Barnes, L. E., High Tea, Norton Museum of Art, W. Palm Beach, FL, 2014.
–Nishimura, M., et al., translated by J. Heaton, “Tea in the historical context of East Asia,” Academia.edu.
–Teas Unique, insert from 2021 Korean Green Tea Luxury Gift Set, and website.

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