By Don Baumhart
Unlike the powdered tea used in the Japanese tea ceremonies, the Korean ceremonies use loose leaf green tea. Traditionally, this tea is referred to as “Jakseol-cha” (작설차) which literally means as “sparrow’s tongue tea,” as the small curled leaves resemble the tongues of sparrows. This “sparrow’s tongue” tea is well known for its exquisite flavor but, like everything involved the Korean tea ceremony, this depends a lot on timing. In his written guide to the tea ceremony, the 19th century monk Cho Ui (조의) noted that the flavor of the tea is adversely affected if the leaves are not picked at exactly the right time. It’s for this reason that Korean green tea is harvested in 4 different stages, which in turn determine the quality and thus the price of the tea.
The first stage of the green tea harvest officially begins on April 20th, known as Gok-u (곡우), when the highest grade of tea leaves are picked. This tea is known as U-jeon (우전), and consists of only the youngest and freshest of the tea leaves. Being the finest grade of green tea, U-jeon can easily cost upwards of 80,000 won for a few hundred grams!
Tea aficionados with a tighter budget can wait for the second tea harvest, which occurs around May 5th or 6th. Older and larger leaves are picked for the second grade of tea, called Sae-jak (새작). Though U-jeon has a finer flavor, this superiority fades only after a few weeks as the tea ages. Then it’s on the same level as Saej-ak, which is sold for about half the price (30,000- 40,000 won for a hundred grams). Later on in the season there is a third harvest when even older and larger leaves are picked. This produces a lower grade of tea called Jung-jak (정작). The final harvest of the season produces the lowest and cheapest grade, known as Dae-jak (대작).
Timing is likewise crucial in the brewing of green tea. Unlike oolong or black tea, Korean green is brewed at well below the boiling point of water, so the water must be allowed to cool to around 70-80 degrees Celsius. A true tea ceremony master is able to judge the temperature of the tea by simply by touching the side of the “su-gu” where the tea is cooling.
How long to brew the tea is yet another delicate matter. Tea that hasn’t brewed long enough will have a thin, weak flavor, whereas tea that is over brewed can taste harsh and bitter. A set amount of tea (usually 3 spoonfuls) is put into the teapot, which allows the host to more accurately gauge how long the tea should brew; more tea, less time. A Korean tea master is of all things a master of timing.
The best tasting tea requires not only high-grade tea leaves and expert timing, but also high quality water. Mountain spring water with a high mineral content is the best for bringing out the flavor of the tea. True tea masters even bring extra bottles for collecting spring water when hiking or visiting temples in the mountains!
Tea Ceremony Styles
Currently there are two major styles of tea ceremonies practiced in Korea: the informal style and the formal. In the informal style guests are seated on the floor across from the host. After the tea is brewed, the host serves each guest a cup. There is a closeness and intimacy with the informal style that fits well with Western social sensibilities.
On the other hand, the formal style is a more complicated. In this style, up to four guests are seated along a wall, away from the host. After the host brews and pours the tea, the cups are placed on a small wood tray and taken to the guests. Once the guests are served, the host returns to his original place where his cup awaits. In both styles tea is brewed, poured and served only two times. During the second service, lights sweets are served along with the tea and conversation regarding the tea and ceramics occurs.
Serving the Tea
In both ceremony styles the tea is brewed in the same precise and methodical manner. Every movement is conducted in slow motion with a careful and deliberate grace. Once the guests are seated, the host begins the ceremony by removing the red and blue silk cover from the tea set, which has already been prearranged on a wood tray. He or she proceeds to turn the tea cups and bowl right side up. Next the tea set is warmed by pouring hot water into the tea bowl, called a “su-gu” (수구), which is then poured into the teapot. Hot water is again poured into the su-gu, which is set aside and allowed to cool to the proper temperature of no more than 75-80 degrees Celsius. In the mean time, hot water from the teapot warms the tea cups. Now empty, tea leaves are added to the pot. Finally, the water from the su-gu (after cooling to the right temperature) is poured in the teapot and the tea begins to brew.
As the tea brews, the cups are emptied and dried. Once this is done, the host pours the tea, and places the cups on coasters. In the informal styles, these are handed directly to the guests, while in the formal style they are placed on the small wood tray before being distributed. After this process is repeated, the teacups and other items are returned to the host who then cleans and dries them as the guests watch. After all the pieces are returned to their proper place on the main tray, the silk cloth is laid back over the tea set signaling that the ceremony is finished.
Fundamentally, the tea ceremony is a form of social meditation where the host and his guests become at one with the present moment and with each other. They appreciate the beauty of the making of tea and the harmony of being together in this beauty. Studying the Korean tea ceremony—or event just participating in it—allows one to glimpse the spirit of ancient Korea and at the same time one’s inner self divorced from the hectic, modern world.
I wish to thank my tea ceremony teacher, Mr. Lee Uk –Hyung (이욱헝), for providing the information I have used in this article. You can read more about him on his website: www.chado.co.kr. I also found the book by Brother Anthony and Hong Kyeong-Hee, “The Korean Way of Tea,” to provide a brief enjoyable introduction to Korean tea and related topics.
Don Baumhart is a Gyeongju resident and E.F.L instructor at Dongguk University. Don has been studying the Korean way of Tea for over 7 years. When he isn’t teaching class or sipping green tea, he can be found playing instrumental guitar or practicing the clawhammer banjo. – Ed.