Lets talk about how Korean green tea, and how it is harvested, processed, and served!
Original image credit to ‘doopedia.co.kr’. English translation added by Merchant of Seoul.
24 Seasons & Tea Picking
Traditionally in East Asia, we follow 24 lunar seasons, and green tea harvest & grading are heavily ingrained in it. It might look crazy and confusing, but for our reference we will only look at parts of Spring, Summer, and Fall.
Fresh tips of tea leaves are picked from late Spring to late Fall. Top grade leaves are picked 1 week before ‘Go-Goo’, the rainy season, and these baby leaves are called ‘Oo-Jeon’. Leaves picked during ‘Go-Goo’ and ‘Ip-Ha’ are called ‘Se-Jak’, a grade below ‘Oo-Jeon’. Grades that come after ‘Se-Jak’ are ‘Joong-Jak’ and ‘De-Jak’, and these leaves are picked after ‘Ip-Ha’. While ‘Oo-Jeon’ means ‘Before Rain’, the grades with ‘-Jak’ suffix refer to the size of the leaf compared to a sparrow’s tongue. ‘Se’ means young/baby (smallest, baby leaves), ‘Joong’ means medium (medium sized, young leaves), while ‘De’ means large/great (full grown leaves).
Although, it is said that the best leaves are harvested in the first 2 months of picking, the cooler temperament of Korean climate sometimes extends ‘Joong-Jak’ and ‘De-Jak’ pickings until ‘Ip-Choo’. Despite the scripted lore of seasonal picking and names, its grading system can be quite vague as each tea master and farms have their own justifications.
Drying & Heat Processing
Once the leaves are picked, they must be dried within the day before they start to oxidize. There are two ways tea leaves are dried in Korea. First method is using a hot iron cauldron where fresh leaves are tossed onto while being constantly stirred to prevent burning. Then the leaves are rolled vigorously on surface until they tightly curl onto themselves. This process cycles over and over again for about 9 times until the leaves are completely dry. The second method involves the fresh leaves being dipped into hot water and drained before entering the process mentioned in the first method. The leaves are also rolled on the hot cauldron instead of a separate surface. This second method is a popular technique more so in Japan, and brings out a much different flavour, colour, and aroma in the tea.
*Stopping the oxidation of the leaves is what separates green tea from Oolong or black tea.
Brewing & Serving
Green tea has a deeply embedded spirituality in Asian history & culture. Even today, tea purists are sticklers on brewing & serving techniques. Merchant of Seoul strongly believes that everyone has their own distinctive taste and should develop their own unique way of brewing. But to better understand the range in which tea can be brewed, lets dive right into what some of these techniques are.
Typically, with higher grade tea such as ‘Oo-Jeon’ and ‘Se-Jak’, water temperature should always be lower than 70ºC -sometimes as low as 30ºC. Higher grade tea possess very complex and subtle tasting notes that can be pulled out with cooler water but will be burnt and bitter with hot water.
Spring water is recommended to brew tea; better yet well water from the regions that the tea originates from. Sometimes the water must sit inside a ceramic pot for a day before it is heated. As you can tell, there are a lot of different rules, and you may start to think that all of this is bogus. However, water purity really does come into factor, especially when you brew green tea powder. You will see difference in density, fluidity, and texture almost immediately.
Tea kit, or ‘Cha-Gi’ in Korean, should be made of wood or ceramic. It said believed that one must use serving tools that reflects the elements at its rawest forms to achieve and maintain highest Chi levels. When heating the water, wood is also recommended instead of electric or gas kits.
Most of these guidelines are derived from ‘Cha-Ching’ by Lu Yu (780 AD), which covers tea growing, processing, brewing and serving. This guide was commissioned by tea merchants at the time to appeal tea culture to the upper class. The book was received well and soon enough wealthy nobles and scholars were seeking out the best tea and kits. Some tea farmers in Korea use paper cups and a electric boiler, while tea masters in Seoul go all out on charcoal heated spring water and whatnot. Be open and mindful. There is no right or wrong way to brew your tea.