Tea for Two, or Three, or Four

Written by on June 14, 2013 in Brands & Products, Lifestyle

Or maybe thousands of people. Koreans drink a lot of tea. This might be hard to believe about a country which is currently inundated with coffee shops galore and tea shops hard to find, but tea has been an essential part of Korean life, practically since forever. Before commercialized bottled water was available on the market and when tap water was not exactly potable, Koreans drank boricha (보리차, barley tea) to quench their everyday thirst.

Barley tea was boiled in big gold nickel kettles in large quantities to be consumed at meals. It generally wasn’t considered a “teatime” drink, it was daily water. Kettles of barley tea were a steady fixture on coal heaters during the winter months when hot water dispensers weren’t available, providing not only a hot beverage but acting as a natural humidifier. They were in classrooms and offices, diners and restaurants. Some traditional Korean restaurants still serve barley tea, but as it is considered too common, the higher end restaurants would probably serve other types of tea.

Barley tea and the familiar kettle

Besides barley tea, oksusucha (옥수수차, corn kernel tea), gyeolmyeongjacha (결명자차, cassia seed tea) would be most commonly consumed during meals. Nokcha (녹차, green tea) and other fragrant teas are usually drunk on their own or after meals.
There are many, many, different types of tea drunk in Korea, seeped with either seeds, leaf, root, herb, flower, fruit, or a mélange of various ingredients, and it would be impossible to list them all.

During the past two weeks, tea expositions took place in both Gwangju and Seoul: the Gwangju International Tea Fair 2013 and the Tea World Festival 2013. Annual events, they showcase all the varieties of tea either currently available or soon-to-be available in the Korean market, from Korea and abroad.
I personally love tea. I admit I start off my morning with coffee, but I usually drink tea instead of water during the day (and night). I like tea compared to water because it has taste and character. I also prefer hot drinks, even in the sweltering days of summer, so tea is essential in my everyday life. (I have a whole cupboard in my kitchen dedicated to tea.) I like that there are many “healthy” teas without caffeine – some might call them tisanes – so there is always something you can sip on. (I am enjoying pine needle tea from the mountains of Daegwallyeong as I write this.)
As it was impossible for me to attend both events due to work schedule conflicts, I decided to go to the closer one: the Tea World Festival in Seoul. Reports I heard about the Gwangju exposition were favorable; one of the most popular events seemed to be the “Green Tea Experience” where you could actually participate in preparing green tea leaves.

Roasting green tea leaves and letting them out to cool and dry

As for Seoul, the number of booths at the venue was staggering. I simply could not sample every single tea at every single booth, so I just sat and sipped and chatted at the booths with interesting looking teas. I mostly chose the booths with “artisan” teas, the non-conglomerate brands from the hills and mountains and valleys in rural Korea.

Green tea served on old grade school textbooks from the 1970s

Of course, green tea ruled. Apparently there isn’t much variation on how you can roast barley for tea consumption, but green tea? So many varieties depending on region, roasting method, fermentation method, drying method, storing method, etc., etc., you get the picture. Not all green teas taste the same. If you have only tried the green teas sold at supermarkets – the ones commercially packed in tea bags – I strongly suggest you try the leaf variety.

Boseong’s booth was prominently featured

Boseong’s green tea fields are quite famous in Korea so it’s quite natural that they had a large booth promoting their products. It’s not only the teas which make the region famous, but also its picturesque hillside fields which make it a popular tourist destination. In the early morning, the mist settles to create a beautiful sight.

The ever popular O Sulloc booth

O’ Sulloc was another high profile booth. The company is renowned for its teas and has high-end tea shops around the country with the same name. I go to their tea shop all the time. I particularly like their gift sets. Some come with tea pot sets attached and they are so beautifully packaged.

Would you like another cup? Yes, indeed!

Not only are there endless varieties to choose from, there is the art of making the tea itself. Coffee and tea aficionados take the brewing and seeping process quite seriously. Even though you don’t go through the entire tea ceremony process of meditation and savoring the sight, fragrance, taste of the tea, there is a certain ritual in tea making that you cannot ignore.
I personally loved the booths where the exhibitors were friendly – almost like bartenders – and where they took their role seriously without being pretentious. All of them poured tea with reverence; not as if they were there to hawk a product.

Which tea would you like?

Preparing tea is a solemn ritual

Cold fermented green tea infusion with yuja

Lotus tea is difficult to make, the growers tell me

Come and sit down. On the floor, the traditional way.]

Rolls of fermented green tea

Look at all these varieties to choose from

Fruit teas and tisanes were also prominently featured

Korean traditional painting packaging for flower teas

There were several booths for international teas as well.

Kenya doesn’t only have coffee, their tea is very fragrant

Mate tea from Argentina has recently gained popularity in Korea

What is a tea expo without tea from China?

And there are all the tea related products: biscuits and cookies, jam, candy and chocolate, sports drinks, sauces and condiments, ice cream, the list goes on and on.

Green tea sea salt

Ceramic of a tea ceremony

Speaking of tea, I have to mention tea ceremonies. Back in my day, we learned the basics at school. I don’t know if they still do, but I have memories of being in a hanbok and trying to suppress teenager giggles while following the instructions of the unfamiliarly somber teacher. Heat the pot and cups with hot water, meditate, throw out water, meditate, set the tea leaves, meditate, seep the tea leaves, meditate, throw out top water, meditate, seep again, mediate, place the cup gently in palm of hand while holding it up with the other and contemplate the color and hue of the tea, mediate, take in the fragrance, meditate, take a sip, meditate, empty cup, meditate, repeat until the tea leaves are devoid of flavor and are overpoweringly tannic, meditate, repeat, and meditate.
All the tea ceremonies I’ve attended have been variations on this base cycle. Attire, attitude, conversation subject are all optional. (Of course, I didn’t mention the preparation of tea leaves before the pouring of the tea because I do not have time to write a dissertation. Although you can add in ‘meditate’ between every single process of that one, too.)

Tea ceremony hosted by a Buddhist temple

The exposition had a series of tea ceremonies going on the center stage, from many different organizations: Buddhist temples, tea companies, tea shops, and tea clubs. I kept on missing the time for visitor participation, but I figure I would have been the only one on stage fidgeting like a restless toddler so maybe it was for the best.
Other musical and dance performances also were being presented on stage, but I think most people were too busy drinking tea to pay much attention. At least, I was. There were also booths with artists creating tea related art.

Traditional bird and flower painting done on the spot

With tea comes the paraphernalia. As much as I enjoyed sipping tea, I enjoyed looking at all the pottery and china and ceramics on display. Most were from talented artisans around the country. All were for sale, these unique creations which you can’t see every day, not even in the traditional markets or shops.
Unlike red or black tea pots, the pots for green tea and its variations tend to be small or tiny, able to fit in the palm of your hand, for the tea is meant to be seeped in small batches. The cups are proportionately sized as well, and as a set, they are simply beautiful.
For the proper enjoyment of tea, you also need more than just a teapot and cups, so that’s where all the extra stuff comes in.

Artisan tea pots from Baekamyo- a coveted collection for tea fans

For the tea aficionado – with pot warmer and tea leave vessel

Korean blue teapot set

Silver teapot is an artistic masterpiece

Tongs, scoopers, and stirrers

Engraved wood coasters

Sugeun Park inspired pottery jars for storage

100% natural agarwood tables for your tea time

Laughing Budai Buddha statues for atmosphere

Or the whole room setup

There were also many booths with naturally dyed traditional clothing and other handicrafts related to tea culture. Special events also take place throughout the exposition and checking the schedule before going is advised.
The entrance fee for the exposition was free for pre-registration and 3,000 won on site but it’s usually the shopping which will wreak havoc on your wallet. I promised myself I wouldn’t overspend, but I did. At least I didn’t buy pottery so I was good (or so I tell myself). My purchases were all tea, for myself and for gifts. I got several packages of white lotus tea, bamboo shoot tea, fermented green tea in yuja (유자, yuzu) shell, and black tea from Kenya. All leaf teas and not the usual fare you find at supermarkets, i.e. expensive. The prices of these artisanal teas reflect the hard work of the growers, so it’s something to remember before you go to these expositions. (Not all the booths will accept credit cards, either.)
I’m actually kind of regretting not having gotten more of the lotus tea, but I received their business card so can order through that. Some shops sell online, most don’t, but will take phone orders if needed.

Say kimchi!

What I like about these sorts of expositions is that there is no specific target market or audience. Tea is universal. It has no boundaries. One of the most memorable scenes that day was a mother, her preschool daughter, and the grandmother all sitting together at a booth, sipping tea. Young girls at the entrance taking a “We were here” photo made me smile, too.

The tea expositions are an annual event. I’m most definitely going again next year. Hopefully I can make time to attend both.

Gwangju International Tea Fair 2013

Tea World Festival 2013

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About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul