Two hours with Korean tea ceremony

Between 4 and 6 PM today was the most interesting 2 hours I’ve had this week, and also the most effortless educational experience I’ve had in a long time. That’s how the Korean tea ceremony is meant to be, as I’ve learned: formal but relaxing, and ceremonious but natural. The rules are rather simple to get acquainted to, the movements make sense, and just watching made my mind feel nothing but calmly pleasant. The kind of pleasant feeling one would get gazing off into space alone, on a grassy hillside, on a cloudy day.

Now for the logistics. Inje University‘s Traditional Korean Tea Society (TKTS) gave a 2-hour presentation at Berkeley today as part of the “Dew of Wisdom” tour, Stanford and California State University got their tea before us. During the first 40 minutes, the students of TKTS demonstrated two types of tea ceremonies, both accompanied by the slow, deep, hardy rhythm of a 6-string zither 거문고 (geomungo).

The first type, 들차회 (deulchahue), is to be enjoyed with friends and relatives outdoor during spring and autumn. The setting is lighthearted, the purpose is to relax and to appreciate nature, the gathering comprises both men and women, and both hands are used during the preparation, serving, and tasting of tea.

The second type, 선비다례 (seonbi darye), or “Scholar’s tea ceremony”, is practiced by noblemen to clear their mind and heighten their wisdom. The setting is dignified, and the man uses only his right hand to prepare and serve, signifying a more profound status than that in deulchahue. In both cases, the movements are fluid, slow, and steady.

During the next 20 minutes, the guests were invited to taste green tea and yellow tea with a variety of 다식 (dasik), tea snack: candied lotus root, dried apple, dried jujube, and a kind of fried chips that I’d only seen in the drama Sungkyungkwan Scandal (성균관 스캔들). The green tea, unoxidized, looks and tastes clear with a very light herbal hint, like a white tea. The yellow tea, about 50% oxidized, similar to Tieguanyin, has an upfront sweetness and a deep citrine hue. Each batch of tea is brewed for about 2 minutes in 60-70°C water, as boiling water would induce a bitter taste.

After ample tea had been served, the guests came back to their seats for a brief presentation from Prof. Jaesup Pak, President of TKTS, on Korean tea production and ceremonial methods. I scribbled like mad, and here’s what little knowledge I’ve gained:

There are 3 major tea plantation regions in Korea: Boseong, Hadong, and Jeju. Boseong is the largest and most respected tea plantation, producing roughly 40% of Korean tea in 5.3 million square meter of hillside. Hadong, second in line, has produced wild tea for over 1200 years, and from its neighboring town Hwagae originated the Korean green tea culture. The tea here is grown completely natural on rocky 400-500 meter high mountainsides and harvested by hand. In contrast, Jeju‘s tea is grown with chemicals and fertilizers on rich volcanic island soil, plucked and chopped by machines, and heated and dried with steam.

Regardless of regions, tea leaves are plucked young between April and May because fully developed leaves are too coarse to use. Different grades of green tea are categorized based on their youngness. Ujeon (우전), the first grade, comes from the first harvest, which means it is picked by hand before April 20 for a delicate flavor. Sejak (새작), the second grade and the most popular type, is picked early May. Sejak means “Sparrow’s Tongue”, referring to the pointed shape of the young leaves at this stage. And finally, Jungjak (중작), the third grade, is picked mid May. The tea offered to the guests at the colloquium today was Sejak from Hadong.

The production process involves 6 steps: plucking, withering, parching, rolling, separating, and drying. Hand plucking tea is meticulous, even the most skilled women can pick only 2 kg per day. Within 24 hours after plucking, the leaves are left to wither in open air. Then they are tossed and stirred constantly in an iron cauldron over wood (traditionally) or gas fire at 200°C to soften. Rolling comes afterwards to intensify the taste, where the leaves are rubbed and rolled for 3-4 times on straw mats. This process makes the leaves stick together, thus separating must be done to help moisture evaporate from the leaves. Finally, the leaves are spread out and dried naturally on paper on a heated floor for 4-5 hours or overnight.

The teaware, or chagi (차기), are typically arranged as shown in the diagram above:
(1) Tea cups: usually 3 or 5 cups per set
(2) Tea pot for brewing. The teapot and kettle should be on the right side and closer to the host.
(3) Tea cup saucer, on which the filled tea cup is placed and received.
(4) Large bowl, into which the water used for warming the pot and cups is discarded.
(5) Tea spoon for taking tea leaves
(6) Smaller bowl for cooling the water and the tea, and for pouring the tea into the cups
(7) Tea caddy, which contains the tea leaves.
The small rectangle represents a napkin for tidiness.

Professor Hyeyoung Shin (Chuncheon National University of Education) performing da-ak (다악, tea music) on a geomungo at the colloquium

The preparation after the arrangement begins with pouring hot water into the cooling bowl and letting it cool for under 2 minutes. Then the teapot, ready with 1-2 spoons of leaves, receives the cooled water; the lid is closed, and the leaves are brewed for a few minutes. While serving, the tea is poured into warmed cups from a high distance to create bubbles in the tea, which are believed to confer good luck. The receiver should hold the cup with the right hand and support it with the left hand, inhale the aroma, take a sip that is about one third of the cup, and drink 3 times from each cup served. I think I did it in more than 3 times… I was savoring the flavor a little too carefully.

At the end, we got to take our cups home as a souvenir. A cute little white tea cup to commemorate a sweet, delicate two-hour lesson. :-)

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