Tea in Korea: Ultimate Guide to Korean Tea Culture
Even though coffee is taking over, tea in Korea has a very long history and is deeply ingrained in the local culture. This guide covers everything about Korean tea – from where and how it grows to where to buy it and how to hold a traditional Korean tea ceremony in Korea.
The History of Tea In Korea
Tea plays an important role in Korean culture and history. Because the history of tea in Korea goes back over a thousand years, it’s not exactly clear how it all started. There are two widely known versions of how the tea plant made its way to South Korea. one
One story dates back around 1,200 years – and it starts in Hadong. A Buddhist monk brought the very first green tea plants to South Korea from China and planted them at Ssanggyesa Temple in Hadong, South Gyeongsang Province.
Another story about the origin of tea in Korea is mentioned in the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms from the 1280s. In this version, the legendary queen Heo Hwang-ok, a princess of the Kingdom of Ayodhya in India, brought the tea plant from India to Korea. This plant is then said to have been planted on Baegwolsan, a mountain near the city of Changwon.
Historians and researchers know for certain is that the origin of the tea plant is in Yunnan Province in China. However, tea culture truly flourished in Tang Dynasty (618 to 907). The reason for this boom in tea was mainly that the Tang dynasty was a relatively peaceful period, and nobility and common people start appreciating tea.
Tang Dynasty China was the center of civilization at the time, and art, poetry, and tea culture were extremely popular and spread to neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea. Soon, tea forests were administered and cultivated by Buddhist monks in various regions in Korea and used in many rituals and ceremonies.
Given these historical events, I lean more towards the former story about the monk bringing the tea plant over from China to Korea. Not to mention that the tea in India also originated from China and Korean tea culture is more closely related to that of China than India. We also don’t know whether this Indian queen even existed or whether she’s simply a myth.
Tea vs. Infusion
After getting into the local tea scene in Korea, I decided to take a course about tea to deepen my knowledge. A great course to start out with is the Foundations of Chinese Tea Course on Udemy. It’s comprehensive and teaches you all the basics for your journey into the world of East Asian tea.
One of the first things you learn on the way to becoming a tea master is the difference between tea and infusions. When we talk about ‘infusions’, we refer to fruit or herbal teas. But the thing is, they’re not really teas at all.
The word ‘infusion’ describes the process of steeping plants or fruits in hot water. Sounds like tea right? Well, an infusion doesn’t come from the traditional tea plant (called camellia sinensis) and, therefore, doesn’t have any tea leaves in it at all.
In this article, I mainly focus on actual “tea in Korea” versus infusions. There are A TON of fruit and herbal infusions in Korea, many of which I will talk about later on in the article.
Simply put, I want this guide to be mainly about actual tea from camellia sinensis – where its plants grow in Korea and how local Korean tea culture works.
South Korea’s Main Tea Regions
There are four main tea-growing regions in South Korea: Jirisan, Boseong, Jeonnam, and Jeju Island. While the former three regions are located in the temperate southernmost region of the Korean peninsula, nestled on mountain slopes not too far from the ocean, Jeju Island’s tea growing areas are influenced by a sub-tropical climate with volcanic soil off the southern coast.
Jirisan Tea Growing Region in South Korea
The area around Jirisan Mountain is considered to be the birthplace of tea in Korea. The first tea plant was cultivated here at the Ssanggyesa Temple by Buddhist monks. Today, you can still find many wild-growing tea plants in the forests around Jirisan, many of which are hundreds of years old. I highly recommend checking out my travel guide for Hadong, the birthplace of tea in Korea if you are interested in learning more and visiting the area.
Boseong Tea Growing Region in South Korea
Boseong is probably the most famous tea-producing region in Korea. The first commercial tea plantation was actually established in Boseong under Japanese occupation in 1939. Some of Korea’s finest, hand-crafted artisan teas are produced in Boseong. The tea farmers in this region pass on their traditional methods from generation to generation. Most teas here are still plucked by hand, hand-roasted in a wok, and then dried in the sun. This process is often repeated up to nine times. If you are interested in trying some of the finest Boseong green teas, check out this selection here, and also check out my Boseong blog post for more details about the area.
Jeonnam Tea Growing Region in South Korea
Another large tea-producing area can be found in the Jeonnam region of South Korea. The cooler climate is especially well suited for the production of powdered green tea, also called matcha. The tea bushes that produce matcha have to be dried and covered in shade cloth for several weeks before the harvest to produce a robust grassy flavor and its deep green hue.
Jeju Island Tea Growing Region in South Korea
On Jeju Island, the tea leaves grow in harmony with the island’s natural environment, blessed with mild sunlight, winds that blow year-round, clear water, and volcanic soil. You can visit the Osulloc Tea Museum in Jeju to learn more about the tea culture in Jeju.
The average temperature of 14° Celcius and the slightly acidic soil makes Jeju perfect for growing tea. Adding to that good annual rainfall and humidity, there really isn’t much more optimal land for harvesting tea in the region.
Most popular Jeju Osulloc Teas:
The most common tea from Korea is green tea but black tea, yellow tea and fermented tea (pu’er or 보이차) are also popular varieties. While all of these tea varieties look and taste different, they all come from the same tea plant: camellia sinsensis. There are many different types of this tea plant all over the world all offering different taste characteristics.
What makes each tea into a variety is the way the tea leaves are processed. In Korean tea culture, this is categorized by oxidation.
Black tea, for example, is an oxidized tea. That means the tea leaves are processed in a way that causes natural oxidation reactions.
Green tea is unoxidized, which means the tea leaves are heated earlier in the production process. This denatures the enzymes in the leaf and causes oxidation before the leaves are able to oxidize.
Yellow tea undergoes a similar process as green tea but has an added step, which alters oxidation and leads to a yellow color.
Fermented tea, like pu’er and 보이차, undergoes a very complex oxidation process that takes many steps, and many of these teas age over time, much like wine – which is also reflected in the price.
Since green tea is the most popular tea variety in South Korea – and widely produced in Korea’s main tea regions, I would like to focus on the different Korean tea grades specifically put into place for its prestigious green teas.
However, if you are also interested in Korean black tea, yellow tea, and fermented tea, I highly recommend checking out Teas Unique (a premium tea shop bringing you Korean tea directly from the growers in Korea) and their excellent locally grown Korean teas:
Nok-cha 녹차: Korean Green Tea
South Korea is the 29th largest tea producer in the world with a yearly output of around 3,200 tons. The most common green tea in Korea is called Jakseol, meaning Sparrow’s Beak Green Tea. This term refers to the shape of the bud and two leaves at the tip of spring growth on the camellia sinensis tea bush.
The four traditional Korean Jaksul green tea grades are: Ujeon (First Pluck), Sejak (Second Pluck), Joongjak (Third Pluck) and Daejak (Fourth Pluck).
Korean Tea Grades
Korean Jaksul green tea is categorized based on the date of harvest, as well as the maturity of the buds or leaves plucked. Let’s have a look at the four traditional Korean green tea grades: Ujeon (First Pluck), Sejak (Second Pluck), Joongjak (Third Pluck) and Daejak (Fourth Pluck).
Tea made from each grade’s harvest has its own taste and flavor notes, ranging from delicate and sweet in early spring Ujeon to deep and rich flavors in summer Daejak.
To understand the different Korean tea grads, we need to look at the harvest seasons. Korea uses a 24-point lunisolar agrarian calendar borrowed from China. This system divides the year into 24 equal segments or significant astronomical or agrarian events.
The tea harvest happens in late spring and early summer points, which include the following events:
The harvest dates for each Korean tea grade are then determined by their corresponding points on the calendar. The harvest window for each grade is pretty fixed every year and only a particular part of the tea bush is plucked; either buds or leaves or both.
The best way to have a taste of the different grades, and judge for yourself which you prefer, is to order a harvest-specific Tea Sampler Set and try them all!
The Korean Tea Ceremony
The traditional Korean tea ceremony, or darye (茶禮), goes back more than 1,500 years. The term literally means “tea rite” and aims at enjoying tea with ease within a comfortable setting. Tea ceremonies are viewed as a way to find relaxation and harmony in the fast-paced Korean culture of today.
The first historic records of a Korean tea ceremony describe offering tea to an ancestral god during a rite in the year 661. Other records from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) show that tea offerings were made in Buddhist temples.
It wasn’t until the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) when the ritualistic drinking of tea was truly refined and the “Day Tea Rite”, a daytime ceremony, became popular. The daily tea rite and a special tea rite reserved for special occasions were well documented in the 1474 “National Five Rites” (Gukjo Oryeui, 國朝五禮儀, 국조오례의).
There are 10 main components to the Korean tea ceremony set: teacups, teapot, cooling bowl, large bowl, coaster, tea scoop, tea towel, tea mat, tea container, and lid holder.
You can purchase a traditional Korean tea set as pictured below here.
There are three main steps to the Korean tea ceremony:
- First, place the tea leaves in the pot and pour water over them.
- Secondly, let the tea steep for around 30 seconds and pour the tea slowly into the fair cup before transferring it into teacups.
- Then, hold the cup with both hands, inspect the tea color, smell it, take a sip and taste it in your mouth for a while. Then, swallow the tea liquid and enjoy the aftertaste. This process is repeated several times until the tea leaves lose their taste.
Here are some other important facts about the Korean tea ceremony:
- There are two ways of pouring and offering tea that vary for females and males.
- You always use both hands during the ceremony.
- Patience is key. You always pour the tea slowly.
- At the end of the ceremony, you clean your hands with the remaining green tea.
- In winter, green tea foot baths and massages are customary.
Here is an excellent video showcasing the traditional Korean tea ceremony step by step:
Korean Fruit, Herbal & Other Infusions
As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, there is a distinct difference between teas and infusions. Now that we’re done talking about Korean teas, I’m going to focus on traditional Korean infusions (often called teas – but they do not include actual tea leaves).
This is a very beautiful flower infusion where a couple of chrysanthemum flowers are placed in a teacup and covered with hot water. The flowers used for this beverage are the ones that are not yet fully open. These are then blanched in bamboo salt water and dried for a period of time.
This is one of the most beautiful infusions to see and is a staple in traditional temples. You take young, whole lotus flowers, steam or roast them and then let them dry. The history around this tea goes back thousands of years. When served, the flowers seem to unfold as the water is poured over them.
This infusion is made of pine needles from the Korean red pine tree. The needles are typically harvested in December from 10 to 20-year-old trees.
This is a very common beverage and you can find it at many cafés around Korea. Dried jujubes or a jujube syrup can be used to make this infusion. Daechucha is said to help with sleep troubles and insomnia.
Korean love to drink plum tea to detoxify the body and help with fatigue. However, this infusion has a very distinct, sharp tart flavor – people either love it or hate it.
The name of this infusion is quite easy to remember as 오 means “five” in English. I love Omija – both hot and cold. What’s interesting is that the berries used for this tea create a rather bitter taste when boiled in hot water but when steeped in cold water, they reveal their true five unique flavors: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and pungent.
This is another very popular beverage, especially in the colder months. The infusion is made using yuja marmalade. Yuja is a citrus fruit that looks a bit like a small grapefruit and is also a cousin to the mandarin. It not only tastes delicious but is also rich in vitamin C and relieves coughs and sore throats.
Grain, Bean, & Seed Infusions
If you’ve ever been to a Korean restaurant before and the water had a mild nutty flavor, chances are it was barley tea! You can find this tea everywhere in Korea. This type of infusion is great for digestion, weight loss, and even controls the blood sugar level.
If it’s not barley tea that’s served at a restaurant, it’s likely buckwheat tea! To make the infusion, the kernels are roasted and then boiled to create a nutty flavor. However, buckwheat is also used to make various naengmyeon and spicy buckwheat noodle dishes.
This infusion is high in protein and fat and has positive effects on cholesterol, cancer prevention, and treatment. The plant used to make this beverage is named after the biblical character Job. The texture of the infusion is quite soupy.
Root, Shoot, & Bark Infusions
Angelica root has a long list of health benefits and helps with heartburn, indigestion, intestinal gas, blood circulation, arthritis, asthma, the flu, and even urinary tract infections. That’s why it’s a popular infusion to have in Korea.
Full of antioxidants, cinnamon tea is popular in many regions of the world. The Korean version of cinnamon tea, however, often uses only the bark from the Cassia cinnamon in combination with ginger and sweetened with a bit of honey.
Ginseng is a staple in traditional Korean (and Eastern) medicine for its properties in preventing nervous disorders and diabetes. In fact, ginseng is a luxury good and makes for a fancy gift for special holidays.
Perfect for cold winter days, ginger tea is consumed widely around Korea. I love drinking really spicy ginger tea when I feel like I am getting a cold and it works like a charm. It’s typically sold in a big jar with honey in most supermarkets.
Tea Experiences In Seoul
You don’t have to leave Seoul to learn more about Korean tea culture. Whether it’s a traditional Korean tea ceremony session, a visit to a local Matcha café, or a visit to an O’sulloc tea store, there are a lot of places to choose from.
Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony at Bukchon Hanok Village: I did this tea ceremony experience a couple of years ago and it was super interesting and very memorable. Check out this tea experience here.
Detox Yoga & Teatox Class: This class combines tea with yoga and is super fun to do! Check out this tea experience here.
Korean Flower Tea Culture Experience: If you’re interested in traditional Korean flower teas, this tour is perfect for you! Check out this tea experience here.
Tea Tours Around South Korea
Here are some of the best tea-related tours and guides to these areas:
- Boseong Green Tea Fields: How and When to Visit
- Boseong Green Tea Festival 1 Day Tour
- Boseong Green Tea Plantation & Naganeupseong Folk Village 1 Day Private Tour
- Hadong Green Tea Region in Korea: Worth a Visit?
- Osulloc Tea Museum in Jeju: Is it worth a visit?
- Jeju Island Road Trip Guide for 1 Epic Week
Books About Korean Tea
If you want to dive deeper into Korean tea culture, the following books will be an excellent help!
This book highlights the history, culture, philosophy, tea and tea ceremony of the Korean tea culture. Learn about the origin and development of the Korean tea culture by looking at historical documents such as the History of the Three Kingdoms, the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, and the Official History of the Goryeo Dynasty. Buy this book.
There are many books about tea – but many make no mention of Korea at all. This book, however, is all about Korean tea. Authors Brother Anthony of Taizé and Hong Kyeong-hee share cultural practices and art forms of Korean tea with inviting text accompanied by full-color photographs. Buy this book.
This book is one of the best to have as a tea enthusiast. Besides the tea culture of Korea, it also highlights tea from China, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and many other tea-growing locations around the world. The book also teaches you the production process and highlights the different varieties of tea and how to best consume them. Buy this book.
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