Making Green Tea in Korea

Nothing is more challenging than to make tea by hand. Much of the finest tea is made by devoted lay persons and Buddhist monks, who regard the task as a spiritual discipline requiring great concentration. Certainly, no one can expect to earn money or fame by tea-making; it can only be done as a labor of love, as a service to those who practice the Way of Tea. Some people begin each day’s tea-making with prayers, meditation and reading of scriptures. Ideally, perhaps, the person making the tea should also pick the leaves but this is not usually possible. The leaves must come from bushes that are located well away from any road, for tea readily absorbs the smell of exhaust fumes. Likewise, those making tea must not use any perfumed soap or cosmetics for the same reason. Externally and inwardly, there must be real cleanliness, simplicity of mind, and devotion of heart.

    A small patch of tea bushes growing almost wild (but in fact carefully tended)

The leaves, too, have to be carefully selected, especially when making the finest tea by hand. It is a little like wine-making, for certain patches of ground yield leaves that are particularly fragrant while other parts of the same valley or hill are incapable of producing tea of that quality. Some plantation-owners apply liberal doses of fertilizer which encourages the rapid growth of insipid leaves; obviously, there must be no trace of insecticide on the fresh buds used for making tea, but in some plantations even that is not guaranteed! People making tea need to check very carefully where the leaves they use have been picked, if they do not pick their own.

      In the lower portion of the photo, people can just be seen plucking tea buds in a relatively large plantation


There are two main methods of hand-drying in use in Korea when making the best green tea. The way of drying resulting in what is known as Bucheo-cha is the most common. About three kilograms of fresh leaves are dried at a time.

     A batch of fresh leaves stands waiting for the cauldron to heat

The drying is done in a thick iron or steel cauldron, which is traditionally heated by a wood fire although nowadays a gas ring is often used, since that allows easier control of the temperature. The cauldron is first heated to about 350 degrees Celsius then the fresh leaves are tipped in. The leaves may emit a hissing crackle as they touch the hot metal. They must be tossed gently and stirred constantly to prevent any burning. This softens them; then once they have absorbed the heat, they can be briefly compressed and rolled together to encourage the evaporation of their moisture. Ofter two people work together to keep the leaves turning, hunched over the hot cauldron in what is a truly back-breaking task.

    The initial parching


After an initial 10 minutes or so of initial softening and drying over the fire, the leaves are removed from the heat and rubbed and rolled vigorously by the palms of the hands on a firm flat surface, often a rough straw mat or basket, so that they curl tightly on themselves. This encourages the development of an intense taste but if too much violence is used the leaves will tear and break and the quality of the tea will suffer. Speed and strength are both essential here.

     The leaves are rolled after the initial parching.


The next step is the most delicate and time-consuming. The emerging juices make the rolled leaves tend to stick tightly together, and they have to be shaken apart one by one in order that their moisture can evaporate freely. Without this, the tea cannot dry properly, but if too much force is used, the leaves will tear and break.

    Separating the sticky leaves

 Throughout the entire drying process, older leaves, twigs and harder stalks must continue to be removed. The partially dried leaves may next be spread thinly on paper laid on trays and left exposed to the air while other batches of fresh leaves are dried.

    Leaves are spread on trays

By the end of the first cycle of drying and rolling, the leaves have already diminished considerably in volume. They are now put back in the cauldron, which is rather cooler than for the first drying though still quite hot. Again they are turned, pressed, rolled gently as the drying continues. Then the hot leaves are once again removed from the cauldron, rubbed and rolled together on a hard surface, and shaken apart.

    The partly-dried leaves go back into the cauldron

Once agin they are given a short time to go on drying in the air. Then the same process is repeated, several times, until they are virtually dry.

    The leaves are rolled and separated again.

    The drying is almost complete

Final Drying

The leaves are then spread out thinly and allowed to go on drying on sheets of clean paper spread on the heated floor of an indoors room for at least 4-5 hours, often overnight. They are then returned to the cauldron, that is now only lightly heated, and kept turning gently, all the time being gently stirred and pressed until the leaves are completely dry. This is the decisive final process, known in Korean as mat-naegi or hyang-olligi (taste-giving or fragrance-enhancing), lasting some two hours. As the drying progresses, the leaves emit a pale cloud of intense fragrance. By the end, their color has changed from bright green to gray.

   The final drying process

   The completely dried tea is winnowed to separate out the broken leaves.

     Tea is brewed using the newly dried leaves

Once the tea is completely dry, it is given time to cool before being packed. This is important, since tea that is too quickly sealed may retain a taste of roasting that will spoil it.

   Packing the tea in foil bags

Korean tea is not usually vacuum packed, but is sealed in foil bags containing 50 grams in the case of ujeon and 50 or 100 grams for other grades. The most important thing is to prevent any contact with moisture. The tea should be stored in a cool place and once a pack is opened, it should be used up fairly quickly, especially in the case of ujeon, which can easily lose its delicate taste once exposed to the air.