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Singular Craft: Korean Tea

Jordan Scherer

Last trip, I had the pleasure of visiting the tea gardens of South Korea. We are lucky to have some inspiring relationships on the peninsula. If you've come to love the rare beauty of teas such as Daejak or the Korean Balhyocha, then read on!

An Introduction to Korean Tea

Tea made its way to South Korea around 1,200 years ago by way of China. There are two primary branches of tea lineage on the peninsula: one is called heirloom which has its roots in the Chinese period and the second branch is from the Japanese Occupation.

Notably, the Japanese brought over the Yabukita cultivar which is harvested in areas such as Boseong and Jeju Island. The heirloom varieties are primarily found near the township of Hadong.

Since South Korea has some of the shortest harvest duration of all tea producing countries the the cost of production is relatively high when compared to other regions. 

With arable land so scarce and the growing season quite short Koreans have had to adapt. Temperature ranges in these producing areas are very cool at night and warm during the day—and the large temp swings create some incredible teas.

Most farms in Hadong practice naatural farming methods harmonious with the ecology of the region. Just about every farm I visited had organic certification.  Farmers passionately expressed how tea trees grown without pesticides trees are more resistant to disease and more resilient in general. 

Tea Growing Regions of South Korea

For the purposes of this post, we're considering three major production regions in South Korea:

  • Hadong:  home to heirloom varietals and Yabukita, primarily hand picked.
  • Boseong:  almost exclusively Yabukita, hand picked and machine harvested.
  • Jeju Island:  almost exclusively Yabukita, primarily machine harvested.

Harvest Seasons and Style

In South Korea harvest seasons typically determine the type of pick.The names of the harvest seasons are typically synonymous with the names of the tea.

Green Tea classified by harvest date:

  • Woojeon:  harvested around 4/15
  • Sejak:  harvested around 4/22
  • Joongjak: harvested around 4/29
  • Daejak: Harvested around 5/5

Black Tea:

  • Bahlyocha An equivalent black tea process, around 70% oxidation. In Boseong they use Yabukita cultivar and in Hadong they use the 'Hadong' or heirloom cultivar.  I found Hadong's black tea preferable - showcasing chocolate/nut notes, while those of Boseong featured more vegetal qualities.
  • Hwangcha (황차) is a type of tea categorised by a processing method akin to an oolong or a rolled, light oxidation black tea. The name ‘yellow’ tea comes from the look of the tea leaves during processing and the color of the resulting liquor rather than from referencing yellow tea processing methods employed in other countries outside of Korea.  I was super impressed with this tea and sent back a good amount for us to have at home.

Picking

Picking methods vary based off each season of picking. The first three harvests (Woojeon, Sejak, and Junjak) include the stem to increase the amino acid content of each tea.  The first harvests have a very particularly relaxing presence.   

Woojeon,  Sejak,  Junjak (includes stem),  and Daejak.


Hadong

Hadong is our initial destination and we saw such an interesting variety of tea production, history, and culture.

Yunseok is a rare bread in the sense that he is very much a mentor to his neighboring tea farms. He considers himself a teacher in the art of tea production and processing. What Mr Cho harbors is a rare mixture of humbleness and soft spoken wisdom. His gardens feature trees between 5 and 40 years old and are are largely planted from seed.

Mr Cho is a third-generation producer—his Grandmother lived in Japan during colonial period where she learned tea cultivation and processing. After the war she came back to her homeland to make tea near Hadong.  He says since he was very young he had a passion for tea. His mother was eager to teach young Yunseok all that she had learned about tea cultivation.

Smallholder Farms

Mr. Cho's total output yield is around 1,000kg annually. The cost of production here is quite high. Each year he hires 32 pickers to help harvest and he processes every single kilogram by hand, himself.

Up the road we met another producer Kim Won Young he primarily produces Woojeon, Sejak, and Bahlyocha  - he is even smaller scale than Yunseok and only produces about 500kg a year.

Yunseok’s Farm

A short drive from Mr Cho’s house we get out of the car with our umbrellas and meandered up a steep slope. I was a bit out of breath due to the hilly and slippery climb. Finally, we cross over the hill and see the heirloom garden. Him and his mother planted the trees here about twenty-five years ago. 

I was very surprised to learn that these trees were already twenty-five years old as they stood only up to about two feet tall.  He explained that the habitat here is at one of the northern most latitudes in the world that can grow tea. As such the tea plant develops very slowly. This is also a reason for the lower yield. 

With the steep slope and very tiny trees I could imagine how difficult it must be for pickers to harvest in this terrain. 

Processing

South Korea is the first place I encountered gas fired heating woks. In regions of Northeastern China and Southwestern China we have encountered both electric and wood fired operations. We noticed that processing facilities were often jointly connected to the home of the tea producer. A token to its small and mighty sense of tradition.

Mr Cho thinks the gas fired kilns are ideal in the sense that there is no aromas that can distract from the taste of the tea. Again, what amazed me the most was that the producers insist on making fully processing the tea by hand.

Post-fermented

I had the immense pleasure to meet Mr. Kim the only known fermented tea producer on the peninsula. He noticed each year that many farmers would choose not to sell the final Daejak harvest. He studied Chinese puer production and is largely self taught. He became obsessive in his pursuit. In his small tea tea room you see rows of tongs each aged a minimum of five years and up to fifteen years the year he first started post-fermentation processing. 

Boseong

We were told that tea production in this region very much reflects the Japanese influence. We got very lucky and, through a friend of a friend, we were able to meet with the Chairman of the Boseong Tea Association—the governing body for training, education, and the local tea competition. That year his farm had won the grand prize for Woojeon.

His farm is on a slope facing east where it very occasionally gets that sweet morning sunlight. Except for the first Woojeon harvest here the trees are primarily harvested by machine. Another prominent reflection of the influence of Japanese tea production in this area.

Although the cultivation is quite similar to Japan it is different in two very important ways. First, the teas in Korea are not synthetically shaded as they are in Japan. Second, the teas are fixed using a heated wok instead of the steaming method as in Japan.

To Return Again Soon!

I learned so much on the travels to South Korea, a region harbored by producers that are truly passionate about their craft.  If you want to taste some of Mr. Cho’s teas he produces our Balhyocha.

 


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