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South Korean Teas and Experiences in Europe

Korean teas, steeped in centuries of history and culture, offer a diverse array of flavours and health benefits. From the intricate rituals of the Korean tea ceremony to the everyday enjoyment of various herbal and green teas, the world of Korean teas is as rich and complex as the country's history itself. This in-depth article explores the varieties of Korean teas, and the traditional tea ceremony with the respective ceramics and gives an insight into two of the best Korean experiences to be tried in Berlin and London.

Historical Background


Tea culture in Korea dates back to ancient times, influenced significantly by neighboring China. The earliest records of tea consumption in Korea are found in texts from the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC – 668 AD), indicating that tea was initially used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. The origins of Korean tea trace back to the 7th century when Buddhist monks introduced it from China. Production began in 828 AD when Daeryeom, a royal envoy, brought tea seeds from the Tang dynasty to King Heungdeok of Silla. These seeds were planted on the slopes of Jiri Mountain, where tea became a staple for the royal elite and monks.

Photo: Seomjin River Valley. Katrina Wild.

During the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), tea culture spread widely, influenced by Buddhism and the seon tradition from China, which later inspired Zen Buddhism in Japan. Tea's national significance fostered the creation of celadon ceramics, an art form that symbolized the aristocratic culture of the time.
Celadon ewer and pillow, Goryeo dynasty, 12th-13th century. Excavated from Gaeseong-si, Gyeonggi-do. National Museum of Korea. Photo: Katrina Wild.

The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) saw a decline in tea culture due to the rise of Confucianism, which favored simplicity and shunned elaborate rituals. Despite this, tea drinking persisted among the aristocracy and in Buddhist monasteries especially in the southern regions, particularly in Hadong. The 20th century brought a revival of interest in traditional Korean teas, driven by a growing appreciation for their cultural and health benefits.

Photo: Picking green tea with Buddhist nuns in Hadong near Seomjin River, South Korea, 13th May 2023. Katrina Wild.

Types and Terroirs of Korean Teas


Korean tea production thrives in the southern regions of Boseong, Hadong, and Jeju Island. These areas, with their milder climates, are ideal for tea cultivation. Jeju Island, in particular, offers perfect conditions with its subtropical climate and volcanic soils of Halla San, the highest point in South Korea. Korea's harsher weather limits the harvest to the early spring months, resulting in an annual production of less than 3,000 tonnes. The spring harvests are classified into four categories based on the calendar: Woojeon (early April), Sejak, Jungjak, and Daejak (late April to early May). As the season progresses, the teas become more robust but less aromatic. Korean teas can be broadly categorized into green teas, black teas, herbal and fermented teas each offering distinct flavours and health benefits.

1. Nokcha (Green Tea)

Green tea, known as "nokcha" in Korean, is the most common type of tea. Unlike other varieties, green tea leaves are not oxidized, preserving their natural green color and rich antioxidant content.
Photo: Making pan-fried green tea with Buddhist nuns in Hadong near Seomjin River, South Korea, 13th May 2023. Katrina Wild.
The main types of Korean green tea include:

- Jakseolcha (Sparrow's Tongue Tea): Named for its small, pointed leaves resembling a sparrow's tongue, this tea has a delicate, slightly sweet flavour.

- Jeoncha (Pan-Fried Tea): Made by pan-frying fresh tea leaves, Jeoncha has a nutty and robust taste.

- Ujeon (First Flush Tea; also known as woojeon): Harvested in early spring, Ujeon is made from the youngest leaves and buds, resulting in a light, sweet, and fragrant tea.




A particular mention deserves the green tea from Jeju Island, Hadong, and Boseong.

Jeju Island


Tea gardens on Jeju Island were established in the late 1970s, and the island now plays a crucial role in Korean tea production. The volcanic soils and climate provide ideal growing conditions, contributing to the island's reputation for high-quality green tea.

Photo: Visit Korea. O'sulloc Tea Museum, located next to O'sulloc's Seogwang Tea Planation in Jeju, was opened by Amore Pacific in 2001 with the aim of introducing and spreading Korean teas and the traditional tea culture of Korea.

Hadong Region


The tea produced in the Hadong region, including the notable Nokcha and Hongcha, is cultivated in the Ju Kro plantation, a historic site with organic certifications from the European Union, Japan, and the United States, and ISO standards. This tea is grown on the slopes of the Jiri San National Park, ensuring a high-quality product that is both environmentally and culturally significant.

Yun Seok Cho, the current owner of the Ju Kro plantation, upholds his family's motto: "In tea, only sincere hands can produce deep aromas." He continues the tradition of crafting green teas while also embracing the production of oxidised red tea. The early woojeon, exclusively green, is typically purchased by monks, underscoring the deep-rooted connection between tea and spirituality in Korea.

Tea picking lady in Gwangyang. Photo: Katrina Wild.

Boseong Region


Nestled in the picturesque region of South Jeolla Province, Boseong has been a significant hub for green tea production. The county's unique climate, characterized by high humidity, ample rainfall, and fertile, well-drained soil, creates the perfect conditions for growing high-quality tea. Boseong's tea farms are famous for their terraced fields that stretch across rolling hills, offering stunning vistas that attract numerous visitors annually. The traditional methods of tea cultivation and processing in Boseong, combined with modern innovations, result in teas with a distinctive, rich flavour and a vibrant green colour.
Photo: Daehan Dawon, Katrina Wild.

2. Hongcha (Black Tea)

Hongcha, or Korean black tea, is a less common but noteworthy variety. An example that stands out in a country predominantly producing green teas is the black tea produced in Hadong. This black tea is appreciated for its unique flavour profile and is traditionally enjoyed in small, stylish stoneware cups, reflecting its artisanal origins from the Hadong district.

3. Herbal and Fermented Teas


South Korea boasts a rich tradition of herbal and fermented teas, with some of the most popular being Ssanghwa-cha, Omija-cha, and Boricha. Ssanghwa-cha, a blend of multiple herbs including cinnamon and licorice root, is traditionally consumed for its health benefits and invigorating properties. Omija-cha, made from the dried berries of the magnolia vine, offers a unique flavour profile combining sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent tastes, believed to balance the body's energies. Boricha, a staple in Korean households, is a roasted barley tea known for its nutty flavour and refreshing qualities, often enjoyed both hot and cold. These teas reflect South Korea's deep appreciation for natural remedies and holistic wellness.



Photo: Pinterest.

The Korean Tea Ceremony


Photo: Ven. Hyesung, chairwoman of the Korea Tea Board. Daewonsa Temple. Katrina Wild.

The Korean tea ceremony, or "darye," is a traditional ritual that emphasizes tranquility, respect, and the aesthetic enjoyment of tea. Unlike the highly formalized Japanese tea ceremony, darye is more relaxed and focuses on the harmonious relationship between the host, the guests, and nature. The ceremony typically involves the following steps:

1. Preparation: The host prepares the tea set, including teapots, cups, and a water kettle, and arranges them on a low table. Fresh, high-quality tea leaves are selected.
2. Boiling Water: Water is boiled and then cooled to the appropriate temperature, usually around 70-80°C for green tea.
3. Brewing Tea: The tea leaves are placed in the teapot, and the cooled water is poured over them. The first infusion is often discarded to cleanse the leaves.
4. Serving Tea: The tea is poured into cups and served to the guests. The host ensures that each cup has an equal amount of tea and is mindful of the guests' comfort and enjoyment.
5. Appreciation: Guests savor the tea, appreciating its color, aroma, and flavor. The ceremony encourages quiet contemplation and conversation.

The Korean tea ceremony, or "dado," is deeply rooted in the principles of Korean Zen Buddhism and Confucianism, emphasizing harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. The ritual involves specific steps such as warming the teapot and cups, using a cooling bowl for the water, and serving tea in small, delicate sips. This practice not only enhances the flavor of the tea but also fosters a meditative state and a deeper appreciation for the present moment.

Korean ceramics, particularly admired by the Japanese, have always been integral to tea ceremonies due to their ideal size and shape.

Goryeo Celadon: following the spread of Buddhism and with the development of tea culture, the demand for higher-quality wares increased during the Goryeo dynasty. Most of the pottery made in this era are the haemurigup celadon and green celadon (low-grade).

Photos on the left: Teapot, Goryeo Dynasty, c. 13th century (Wikipedia)
Photo on the right: tea cup for a ceremony, celadon, 12th century, Goryeo Sangam inlay technique (Wikipedia)

Buncheong pottery emerged in the 15th century during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910): this gray stoneware, decorated with abstract motifs and covered with a white slip, reflects a refined yet understated aesthetic.
Photo: Buncheong Lidded Bowl with Inlaid Peony Design (Wikipedia)

Conclusion


Korean teas offer a delightful journey through a rich cultural heritage, blending history, tradition, and health. Whether enjoyed in a traditional tea ceremony or as a daily beverage, these teas provide a unique and flavorful experience that reflects the depth and diversity of Korean culture. As global interest in tea continues to grow, Korean teas stand out for their unique characteristics and the profound cultural practices that accompany them.

Photo: Katrina Wild.

 

A Comprehensive Review of My Experience at Be-Oom, Korean Tea House and Garden in London, UK



Walking into Be-Oom, I immediately felt a sense of tranquility. The minimalist design, with its clean lines and natural elements, perfectly complemented the serene atmosphere. The soft lighting and calming background music created a peaceful environment, ideal for enjoying a cup of tea.

Be-Oom offers an impressive variety of teas, sourced from small, family-run farms in Korea, emphasizing organic and natural cultivation methods. Their menu includes:

- Camellia Sinensis loose-leaf teas: mainly dedicated to green (first, second, third flush) and black tea.
- Flower teas: delicate and aromatic, these teas provide a floral essence that is both soothing and refreshing like the wild plum flower or the wild magnolia petals.
- Herbal teas: a diverse selection catering to various health needs, offering calm and revitalising options such as burdock root, persimmon leaves, or buckwheat.
- Blended teas: Include black and cinnamon tea, or latte, or chestnut tea latte, or black tea with ginger.
- Malcha (the Korean version of Matcha): creative options include Malcha yuzu sparkling or the classic Malcha latte.
During my visit, I indulged in several exquisite choices:

I tasted their roasted green tea which I paired with glazed chestnuts, mascarpone cheese, homemade persimmon preserve, and poppy seeds crackers. This tea offered a perfect blend of roasted and sweet flavors which married to perfection to the glazed chestnuts and persimmon preserve. The mascarpone cheese contributed a buttery texture and creamy aftertaste while the poppy seeds crackers provided that cereal and crunchy consistency that complemented the roasted notes of the green tea.

I tasted as well the herbal tea made with the burdock root with the chestnut cookies: these cookies, infused with black sesame, provided a delightful crunchy texture and earthy taste which made up for the peculiar taste not so much to my likings of the earthy notes of the burdock root.

I savoured as well the perfectly balanced black, cinnamon, and chestnut tea latte which I complemented with sweet pumpkin rice cake. This latte was a comforting and warming blend, perfect for a cozy and rainy afternoon in spring.


The staff at Be-Oom was knowledgeable and passionate about tea. She provided detailed explanations of the different types and brewing methods, enhancing the overall experience.
The presentation was impeccable, with teas served in clean lines teaware, adding an authentic touch. Be-Oom successfully combines traditional South Korean tea culture with a modern, minimalist aesthetic. The high-quality, organically sourced teas, coupled with excellent service and a serene environment, make it a must-visit for tea enthusiasts and those seeking a moment of calm in a busy city.

For more information, you can visit their website.

A memorable homemade Korean dining experience at Soopoollim in Berlin, Germany


Soopoollim, a Korean teahouse in Berlin's Mitte, offers an intimate and tranquil atmosphere inspired by East Asian forests. The use of wood and greenery throughout the space creates a serene and welcoming environment. The staff's dedication to traditional Korean herbal teas and homemade dishes adds a personal touch that feels like a warm invitation into the Korean culinary heritage.


Tea Selection and Quality

Their selection of teas is impressive, particularly the herbal selection is outstanding. Each tea on the menu is meticulously described, highlighting its benefits for well-being. My choice, the roasted rice green tea, provided a comforting and nutty flavor that was both soothing and delightful and the Solomon's Seol Tea with a iodic note quite persistent.

Menu Highlights

The menu at Soopoollim features a variety of traditional Korean dishes and seasonal specials. The standout choices I enjoyed include:
  • Bossam: Slow-cooked pork belly served and broiled with Doenjang served with freshly made kimchi, preserved shrimp and mixed-grain rice

  • Mandu: Homemade Korean Dumplings filled with minced pork, onions, cabbage, garlic chives, spring onions and glass noodles



Additional Dishes

In addition to the above, the fixed menu features the white bibimbap, a vegan rice bowl with silken tofu, and monthly specials like Cheese Dakkalbi, a spicy grilled chicken dish with melted cheese.

Desserts

I haven't had the chance to taste onsite the Seoul Roll Cake, a sponge cake roll filled with whipped cream, and Chapsaltteok, mochi with matcha cream and red bean paste, or their Dalgona (coffee tiramisu) which are highly recommended, but I took away the Yakbap, sweet Korean dish made by steaming glutinous rice and mixing with chestnuts, jujubes, and pine nuts, and the Dasik Chocolet, three truffle chocolates in a Korean traditional cookies' shape, which were outstanding.

Service and Presentation

The service at Soopoollim is attentive and friendly, with staff eager to share their knowledge of Korean tea and cuisine. The presentation of both tea and food is elegant, reflecting the care and tradition behind each dish.

Overall Experience

Soopoollim offers a unique and enriching dining experience that combines traditional Korean flavors with a cozy, forest-inspired setting. The high-quality teas, delicious food, and warm hospitality make it a must-visit spot in Berlin. Whether you're a tea aficionado or simply looking for a comforting meal, Soopoollim delivers a memorable experience.

References

1. Gautier, Lydia & Danies, Joelle. (2018). Portraits de thés:  Voyage dans 40 pays producteurs.
2. Teas Unique LLC. Korean Tea Grades - Ujeon, Sejak, Joongjak and Daejak. Available HERE.
3. Kimchimari. 14 Everyday Korean Teas. Available HERE
4. Korean Tea Wikipedia. Available HERE.
5. Yujin Choi. Healing in a Cup—Korean Traditional Teas for Rejuvenation. Available HERE
6. Taste Atlas. TOP 7 KOREAN TEAS AND HERBAL INFUSIONS. Available HERE
7. Koreaetour. Korean Tea Culture and Ceremony. Available HERE
8. Korea Net. Tea culture in Korea. Available HERE.
9. United On the Rock. The Culture of Tea in Korea. Available HERE
10. The Soul of Seoul. Guide To Korean Teas: What They’re Good For & When To Drink Them. Available HERE
11. Brother Anthony of Taizé & Hong Kyeong Hee. (2011). The Korean Way of Tea. Available HERE
12. Be-Oom



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