South Korea’s fine teas aim to attract Western consumers

While the urban millennials indulge in Western coffee habits, the revival of ancestral tea traditions continues to gain ground in South Korea together with innovative blends and ready-to-drinks cups by local brands, which are keen to enter the international scene. By Barbara Dufrêne

Tea growing and drinking is deeply rooted in Korea, at least since the Golden Age of Buddhism under the Koryo Dynasty (918 to 1392) with many monasteries harvesting tea and sharing the cups with the court. This flourishing tea culture lasted over several centuries but ended abruptly with the arrival of the Choson Dynasty, which reigned over Korea from 1392 to 1910.

The new rulers abandoned Buddhism as the state religion and adopted Confucian ways instead. Consequently, the monks moved quietly to the south of the peninsula, hiding away from the new power, taking their teas with them, and continuing to grow tea bushes, persimmon trees and lotus plants, all of them vital contributors to their concept of healthy living. A cultural revival of tea came through Buddhist monk Cho Ui (1786 to 1866), who lived as hermit in Daehung Temple and is still venerated as “Tea Saint” today.

The Choson Dynasty was overthrown by the Japanese who invaded Korea and annexed the country between 1910 and 1945. In order to improve their domestic supply, the Japanese launched intensive tea planting in the southern province, which are thriving again. Agonizing through the Korean War, the peninsula was finally divided into North and South Korea in 1953, with a communist regime in the North still in place today and military rule in the South lasting until 1987. Many historians report the incredible sufferings endured by the Korean people throughout the 20th century before gradually recovering and moving towards a highly efficient market economy in the Republic of Korea.

Buddhist Tea Traditions vs Western Coffee Craze

Today, the long history of tea in Korea, with its ups and downs spanning more than a thousand years, has turned into the basis for a successful revival of the peninsula’s continental tea-growing areas. Furthermore, a fully new tea region was created in the mid-1970s on Jeju Island, by farsighted Mr Seo Sung-Hwan, founder of Amore Pacific Corporation, the leading player in Korea’s cosmetics industry. With a land area of only 100,400km² (38,750 sq m) South Korea is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with about half of its 51.7 million inhabitants living in the capital Seoul and the surrounding urban conglomeration. There seems to be a true gap between the older generations, who remember the hardships of occupation and war and cling to Buddhist traditions, and the millennials who were born with the booming economy and digital media and are keen on Western ways.

Over the past ten years, Western coffee habits, firmly driven by iconic Starbucks Coffee, have spread to the Asian markets, leaving tea consumption far behind. Although many Koreans are still tea drinkers at home, they go to the thousands of coffee shops for socialising. South Korea boasts 4,900 coffee shops with 1,800 of them in Seoul, per data by research firm Statista. Recently, however, Starbucks has introduced some Teavana teas and the local coffee chain Twosome Place has entered a partnership with Singapore’s TWG Tea, adding a selection of fine teas to meet consumer demand. Flavoured and blended teas, marketed by other foreign luxury brands like Mariage Frères or Thés Christine Dattner Paris, have also carved out their market niche. Recently, young consumers have started to queue for Taiwanese bubble teas, one of the latest trends.

According to Mina Choo, a professor at Gwangju’s Nambu University and initiator of the annual Boseong Tea Festival, the main trends for tea consumption in Korea today appear to be:

  • On one side, premium profile, novelty blends and flavourful recipes provided mainly by several foreign brands;
  • On the other side, local traditional terroir quality, health benefits and convenience, provided mainly by the domestic tea industry.

Discovering South Korea’s Fine Teas

Total tea output in 2018 stood at about 5,000 metric tonnes, according to the International Tea Committee, based in London, England. Although this shows a growth of 26 percent over the past 10 years, the volume remains below 0.1 percent of the world tea production. The total acreage for tea planting has remained stable at just under 4,000 hectares, more than half being located on Jeju Island.

Koreans are mainly green tea producers, using both the Japanese steaming and the Chinese pan- frying process. There is also some excellent black tea made in both Boseong and Hadong tea gardens and the manufacturing of green tea powder is also growing. Furthermore, some traditional teas, like ddok cha, a compressed dark tea, can be stored for a long time, and there are the many herbal teas that are grown for medicinal purpose, and sometimes blended with genuine camellia leaves.

The tea plants in Korea are from the camellia sinensis var sinensis type with a major share belonging to the Yabukita varietal brought from Japan to the Boseong region. There are also tea plant varietals that have been grown from the wild tea bushes around Jirisan, which were brought to the Korean peninsula by Buddhist monks travelling home from China from the 8th century onwards.

The quality grades for fine green and black leaf are derived mainly from the picking periods, which follow the Chinese lunar calendar. The best leaf are the early spring picks, called Woojeon, followed by Sejak in the later spring, by Joongjak in the summer, and the last one being the autumn harvest, called Daejak.

The tea-growing areas are all in the south west and close to the sea, thus benefitting from fresh and cool air. The most ancient tea plantations are located around Mount Jiri/Jirisan and the Hadong area, where the former tea cultivation, abandoned through politico-cultural changes, has yielded thousands of wild tea bushes grown spontaneously from the seeds, and left there to thrive in the forests for centuries. Here, some small family tea farms have revived traditional tea-making ways and are now hand-crafting some green and black premium teas, making exquisite and outstanding cups, tiny volumes and hefty prices, but treasured by Western tea lovers.

The Boseong tea fields, south of Gwangju, were created by Japanese occupants, with the purpose of supplying the Japanese home market. They are located in a beautifully scenic surrounding and about a six hour drive from Seoul. Some of them are even open for tourism and as an introduction to tea production. There are many small producers in this area, who grow about one third of the country’s teas, and many of them are already certified organic, with all the Boseong teas having obtained Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) since 2005. Boseong county has also established the Korean Tea Museum, which opened its doors in 2015 and attracts many Korean and foreign visitors. According to chief tea judge, Professor Park Keun-Hyung, himself also owner of a tea garden, most of the tea companies in this area have created premium brands with beautiful packaging. This is for selling the hand-picked early season teas, whereas the coarser later leaves are usually mechanically harvested and sold to the bought-leaf factories for making quality tea bags for the mainstream market.

Jeju Island, half way between Japan and Korea, in the Korea Strait, is the newest tea area, with planting having started in the mid-1970s. Designed from the beginning for high yield, state of the art industrial processing and mechanical harvesting, the volcanic soil, flat fields and tropical climate offer ideal growing conditions. As part of the Amore Pacific Corp these teas further benefit from smooth commercial logistics and some English-speaking staff, which enables access to the international market.

With significant volume at hand, most of Korea’s tea exports originate from Jeju under the O’Sulloc or Seokwang brand.

Focus on Promotion and Visibility

Since 2014, the Korean tea trade tea has run a professional expo in Seoul’s big convention centre, COEX, and there is also an important annual Tea Festival organized in Gwangju. Both are inviting domestic and foreign players and try to attract buyers and tea-sourcing people from all over the world.

In 2018, a delegation from Boseong attended the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada, which was a tremendous experience thanks to the assistance of Sharyn Johnston, the founder of Australian Teamasters. Johnston also started the first Korea Tea Travel for tea professionals in 2018, after having successfully launched a Korean Breakfast Blend, made from organic teas harvested by 12 small but award-winning Boseong tea farmers.

As tea drinking is gradually becoming more casual, with more good cups now available in coffee shops, consumption is rising, and the younger generations are starting to care more for their home-grown cups. RTD teas and coffees are widely available in convenience stores, supermarkets and vending machines. Also, matcha-type tea powders are gaining ground, with good quality and many organic labels becoming more widely available.

With the mix of ladies wearing the traditional Hanbok garments, monks and nuns in Buddhist religious outfits and young people in Western style dress mingling in the street, it is obvious that the social blending continues. Tea seems to be on the rise with both the traditional and the innovative cups getting increased consumer attention. With the gaps narrowing year by year, the outlook for tea is bright.

  • Barbara Dufrêne is the former secretary general of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrêne@ora

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