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Making tea in Korea

After the loss of Korea's tea culture in the 14th century, tea trees continued to grow wild in the southern regions, especially on the lower slopes of Chiri mountain. These self-propagated bushes provided the leaves used by those few people still aware of their value. Tea does not grow north of Chonju and not on every kind of soil to the south. In recent years additional bushes have been planted on the slopes of Chiri-san, and other southern hills, but without the creation of large artificial tea plantations. The finest tea is that grown in complete harmony with nature and with limited use of fertilisers or insecticides.

Tea plantationsof a more intensive kind, with the bushes planted in neat rows and operated on an industrial scale, have been established in various areas, the most important being those found in Posong near Kangjin; other large industrial tea-plantations can be found on the slopes of Wolch'ul-san, also in the south-west, and and in the island of Cheju-do. The Posong plantation pictured here produces the tea known as Yubi-ch'a. Click here for some more (rather romantic) photos of the Posong tea fields, which have become a popular tourist spot.

The remaining photos on this page were taken in Chiri Mountain and show the making of Panyaro Tea by the great Tea Master Chae Won-hwa.

Tea can only be made using the fresh tips, the scarcely opened buds that start to grow in early April. Once a leaf is fully developed, it is soon too coarse for use. After late May the bushes may continue to produce further shoots but these no longer have the intense flavour needed for good tea. Therefore all the green tea needed for the year has to be plucked and made in less than two months. The very earliest buds have the finest flavour, and are the most difficult to collect, especially if the winter frosts last late.

The different grades of green tea

The Korean calendar has twenty-four seasonal dates based on the movement of the sun, which it borrowed from Chinese tradition; the day known as Kok-u normally falls on April 20. The tea gathered before this date is known as Ujon and commands the highest price. The next seasonal date Ipha falls on May 5-6, and tea gathered between those two dates is known as Sejak. Tea gathered after Ipha is known as Chungjak. These names (also of Chinese origin) often figure on the menus in tea-rooms, to the mystification of the uninformed public. It should also be added that the Korean weather is colder than that in China, with the result that Korean tea-makers, although they pay lip-service to the traditional dates, actually go on making 'Ujon' from the first growth of shoots way beyond April 20, when very often there are no new shoots on the tea bushes. The earlier the tea, the more delicate the taste and the cooler the water should be in making it, with many authorities recommending that the water for Ujon should be cooled down to 50 degrees.

How green tea is dried

The gathering of leaves requires skill and speed. It is done mostly by the women of the region, who can only collect a few pounds of leaves in the course of a day. The drying of the leaves into tea for drinking must be done within twenty-four hours of picking, before the juices in them start to oxidize. In Korea as in Japan, the easiest, industrialized  method of drying green tea involves the use of a revolving drum in which the leaves are dried by a flow of hot air as the drum turns.

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 Puch'o-ch'a is much more common; the fresh leaves are first tossed in a very hot iron cauldron over a wood or (now more often) a gas fire, being stirred constantly to prevent burning. This softens them. Then the leaves are removed from the heat to be rubbed and rolled vigorously on a flat surface, so that they curl tightly on themselves. They are then returned to a less intense heat, and the process is repeated a number of times, traditionally nine times, until the leaves are completely dry.


With the tea known as Chung-ch'a, represented by Panyaro tea, the fresh leaves are plunged for a moment into nearly boiling water (left), then allowed to drain for a couple of hours, before being placed over the fire. Chung-ch'a is much commoner in Japan than in Korea but after the initial stage there is little or no similarity in the way of making the tea. The resulting teas are completely different in color, taste and fragrance.

With Chung-ch'a the drying and rolling are done concurrently, the leaves are not removed from the heat until they are completely dried, after about two hours. During this time, the leaves are constantly turned, rubbed, and pressed to the bottom of the cauldron. The drying has to be completely regular and at the same time no leaf must burn. An intense fragrance emerges from the leaves as the drying advances.

This means that the people stirring and rubbing the leaves between their (gloved) hands to roll them are obliged to sit directly over the cauldron on its fire. Not surprisingly, this tea, which has by far the finest fragrance, is very expensive. It takes many years of experience to know just when to stop the drying; tea which is removed from the fire too quickly still contains moisture that can cause it to go mildew after a few months.

(Pictures) Chae Won-hwa takes charge of operations during the last 30 minutes or so. She decides when the time has come to take the tea from the fire.

She takes the tea into a store-room which no one else is allowed to enter. She explains that there she prays over the tea, and does whatever else is needed to give her Panyaro tea its remarkable intensity of flavour. She insists that when she has chosen someone to be her authorized successor, she will instruct that person in these final mysterious rites. It is important that the dried tea leaves remain in a very warm, dry place until they are packed in air-tight containers, so that the drying continues.

The main difference between green tea and the kinds known as oolong or red (in English black) lies in the lack of oxidation, also known inaccurately as fermentation. If the juices and enzymes within the leaves are allowed to oxidize, their surfaces having been bruised by initial cold rolling, and the final drying delayed by several hours, the result will be an immense variety of tastes quite unlike green tea.

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