An Insider’s Guide To South-Korea’s Tea Regions & Tea Houses
Tea has had a long history in Korea. And in the modern era, there are still many vibrant hot spots, or should I say “green” spots (not funny? Okay…) around the country to this day. From the windswept tea farms of Jeju. To the rainy, rolling hills of Boseong, to the possibly ursified (meaning bear-ified, more about the bears later!) tea plantations and tea festivals near Jirisan. But besides these three “pure lands of tea”, there are also many cafes and tea houses or dabangs (다방/tea house) in major metropolitan areas such as Seoul and sunny Busan.
South Korean Tea Growing Regions
Deep in the rolling hills and mountains of Jeollanamdo (전라남도) one will find the “Green Tea capital of Korea”, Boseong (보성). Boseong is a paradise for tea. Its history goes back hundreds of years when some green tea seeds were planted at the foot of Jirisan (지리산, “san” means “mountain”) in southeastern Korea. The Jirisan area hosts some other extraordinary tea regions as well. It wasn’t until the 1930’s during Korea’s painful colonial period that tea was mass produced at Boseong by Japanese colonists. After the end of the colonial period and the tumult of the Korean War, Boseong experienced another ebb and flow of fortune until somewhat recently. With the help of local government and mass media, Boseong and its tea farms were revitalized. Today it is a thriving plantation for excellent tea. Today Boseong produces 40% of Korea’s green tea.
What makes Boseong tea so special is the area’s nutrient rich soil, and humid sea breezes that bring warm air and rain up from Korea’s southern coast. When my wife and I visited there it was a misty and rainy place, but also the greenest place I have ever seen. The Daehan Green Tea plantation, the area’s biggest plantation, has a beautiful and scenic farm with neat winding rows of tea bushes that lead all around to the top of a great hill. On clear days they say you can even see the ocean from there! The whole area is surrounded by a perimeter of aromatic and massive cedar trees. A bamboo grove, so dense that it blocks almost all light leads curious tourists into a mysterious and beautiful thicket.
Boseong for gourmands
In addition to the beautiful sights and smells of the plantation are all the delicious tea based foods you can try! At the entrance of the plantation is a small café that specializes in green tea ice cream. It is so rich with a fresh green tea flavor, you won’t need caffeine for a while! A restaurant on the grounds also serves tea infused samgyeopsal (삼겹살). What do I mean by infused? Well not only are the thick cuts of pork sprinkled with healthy doses of powdered matcha, but according to the staff, the pigs are also fed tea leaves too! The meat has a sweet and aromatic taste, imbued with the earthy body of the matcha. The flavor itself is incredible. Juicy, succulent and savory erring into umami territory with the emboldening flavors provided by the matcha. It is said pigs fed with their green tea have meat that has a more pleasant odor and is extra tender, I would vouch for this! The restaurant on the grounds provides other great green tea eats such as Tteokgalbi(떡갈비/grilled short rib patties) which includes pork also fed by tea leaves, as well as green tea naengmyeon(냉면/cold buckwheat or starch noodles). We got a box of these to take home and they are tender, rich in flavor and sweet!
Boseong’s Way of Tea
Now for the tea itself! How could I forget? On the plantation’s grounds you will see a few small buildings and cafes, one of which is a gift shop. What’s special about this gift shop is that there is a special tasting area. Fees range between a few Korean won for a cup to a bit more for a whole pot. We opted for a pot. This was great because, because the staff there serve the Boseong tea in the traditional Korean way.
The Korean Way of Tea includes first pouring boiling water from a kettle into a tea pot filled with leaves. Korean teapots of the traditional variety vary, but often times have a side handle, the one we were served from did. After allowing the leaves to expand and unfold in the pot, the liquid contents are poured into a wide bowl with a spout-like lip. This bowl is then used to serve tea into all the individual cups, which are usually small and possess no handles. When the staff server poured the tea into our cups, the aroma hit us first, it was a deep and airy but bold rush of tea-scent. The way to enjoy tea is to finish your cup in three sips. First, to enjoy the top layer of the tea. The first sip you can taste the ocean breeze as the aroma and pleasant light green color gets introduced to you. The next sip, the body of the tea gives it a more earthy and herbal flavor, the green surroundings are represented in this sip. The final sip, the terroir of the nutrient rich soil gives this one a special final farewell. Luckily with a whole pot of tea we were able to enjoy a few more rounds. Not just the flavors, but the lift of the caffeine was incredible. It wasn’t a heart palpitating rush like other types of caffeine, it was more of a calm and powerful sense of wakeful awareness of my surroundings. It seemed like all excessive thoughts ceased and I was moving and thinking at an extra 10%. Needless to say, I highly recommend!
Boseong hosts an annual tea festival where guests may come and pick tea leaves, sampling tea and tea flavored snacks and other cultural events and activities! The event is held in May, and there are buses that run from Seoul and Gwangju in Jeolla province to Boseong.
Further to the northeast of Boseong, at the foot of Jirisan lies the county of Hadong (하동). Hadong is the other legendary place of tea in Korea. While Boseong may be the Green Tea Capital, Hadong is the cradle of Green Tea culture in Korea. While tea had been consumed in Korea since the reign of Queen Seondeok of Silla (선덕여왕) in the 7th century. The first green tea crops, however, were planted in Hadong by the order of King Heungdeok (흥덕왕) in 828 A.D. Since this time the Green Tea crops of Hwagae(화개) in Hadong county have been producing some of the oldest and finest tea in Korea.
Healthy tea from the mountain
High quality tea is often produced on mountain slopes and foothills due to the extra humidity as well as fog and cloud coverage mountain slopes provide. And so, the slopes of Jirisan are a great place for these crops to flourish. In addition to nurturing environment of the mountain, the nearby Seomjin river (섬진강) provides nutrients and more moisture for the crops. Wild tea plants that are the descendants of these original crops still grow all around the valleys and slopes of Hwagae and the Hadong region. Hadong’s humidity, quality soil, nutrient rich mineral water and proximity to elevation via Jirisan all coalesce into a magnificent tea!
Similar to Boseong, Hadong also hosts a tea festival annually. This tea festival runs through May or June and also features tea picking, sampling and cultural and traditional events. Hadong also is home to a tea museum that is a must-visit for fans of the Camellia Sinensis in all it’s verdant glory. In addition to tea plantations and festivals in the summer, Hwagae, a keen area for tea, is also home to wonderful cherry blossoms in the spring, and other scenic views of the valleys and mountains that are enchanting any time of year.
Oh, and that thing about the possible presence of bears? Efforts by the Korean National Park Service have successfully rehabilitated the native Asiatic Black bear (or “moon bear” for the little crescent moon shaped mark on their chests). You can even take a tour to their restoration center to see these furry mountain friends in Gurye (구례) county. Gurye is also at the foot of Jirisan and is between Boseong and Hadong, if you’d like to add some wildlife visits to your tea-tour plans!
The mainland tea plantations are superb, but Jeju island (제주도) boasts some incredible Green tea that cannot be ignored. Jeju is a large island off Korea’s southern coast. It is often compared to Hawaii in regards to its landscape, plants, natural beauty and laid back lifestyle. Jeju is an incredible place to visit and experience whether one likes tea or not. There is so much to do and see, like exploring Hallasan (한라산), taking in the sublime beauty of Cheonjiyeon Falls(천지연폭포), or sampling some delicious hallabong (한라봉). And these are just the beginning of a unique experience in Jeju, one that continues to extends to its tea plantations too.
Osulloc (오설록) tea plantation’s history is not as antiquated as the other two tea hot spots. But the spirit in mind is just as ancient, started in 1979 by the founder of AmorePacific, Seo Seong-hwan, Osulloc was started with the goal of reinvigorating Korea’s traditional tea culture. So, after purchasing a plot of barren land on Jeju and after lots of perseverance and determination, the Osulloc tea plantation was born. Osulloc is now a leader of green tea production and provides some incredibly high quality and delicious tea.
Tea on an island paradise
Jeju island is mostly comprised of volcanic rock, making many other crops and types of agriculture extremely difficult if not nigh impossible. However, in regards to Jeju island’s ability to produce tea, this is an area of great strength for the island. Tea plants thrive in acidic soil, with high humidity, rainfall and usually, a great deal of warmth. The incline from mountain slopes, like those on the windward sides of mountains, provide extra precipitation with cloud and fog coverage. This provides extra shade to the tea plants, improving their flavor. Jeju island just so happens to provide all of the variables that contribute to great tea plants!
Besides Jeju’s natural environment, Ossulloc’s tea is also certified organic and boasts a uniquely Korean fermented line of tea. Korea has been famous for fermenting food for centuries, and Osulloc offers a special line of tea fermented the Korean way, in large clay pots. Osulloc also has a sophisticated tea museum that features tea cups and bowls throughout the ages and a café where you can try delectable treats and sample the beverages yourself. Osulloc has tea houses and cafes all over Korea, with it’s museum and main site located in Seogwipo city on Jeju island.
Osulloc owns three separate plantations all along the southern side of the island, each located at the foot of Hallasan. Each one offers a unique terroir based on the natural factors affecting each area they are located in. For example, the Seogwang field is known for its dazzling color, the Dolsangi field for its enticing aroma and the Hannam field is credited for its marvelous taste!
South Korea’s Tea Houses & Other Hotspots
Tea in Seoul
Now for the honorable mentions featured in Seoul and Busan! While not tea plantations per say, these two major world class cities still host an impressive plethora of tea houses, or, dabangs. These tea houses retain a great deal of tradition and charm, especially since many of them are built in the style of hanok(한옥) houses. Some even encourage you to wear hanbok(한복/ Korean folk clothing) which you can rent!
- Among the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) in Seoul, there is a tea house and a café. To the left and away from the palace proper is a modern style café that still offers impressive food and drinks. However, a traditional one is to be found on the palace grounds. The staff all wear hanbok and the tea served there is exquisite.
- “Dawon” (Traditional Tea Garden) is located in Insadong and is hosted inside a beautiful hanok style building. You can order traditional tea snacks and rice cakes alongside medicinal hanyak(한약) tea here!
- “Shin Old Tea House”, also in Insadong and also in a hanok style building, is a really amazing tea house to visit. The interior is cozy and includes a plethora of traditional arts and objects. Be prepared to sit on the floor, however!
Tea in Busan
Seoul isn’t the only city boasting some great cafes and tea culture. Busan also has a few choice spots for those in the mood for the traditional pick-me-up.
- “Da Jeon” is a charming vegetarian restaurant (one of the few currently in Korea), but also a great purveyor of tea. The restaurant is environmentally conscious and supports organic farming, too!
- “Da Hae Jeong” in Busan’s Nampo is a great place for more exotic teas, such as pu’er and black tea. This is the place to be for more traditional and Korean style tea and tea snacks.
- “Nae Go Hyeong Jun Tong Chat Jip” in Bujeon is another great locale. This dabang specializes in hanyak. Personally, I love the bitter, dark, chalky, astringent and sharp taste many of the hanyak teas have to offer. And whether these teas truly can cure or prevent the ailments they describe, is irrelevant to me in the face of their incomparable!
More tea than can be counted!
This list is by no means finite! There are so many amazing dabang and cafes all around Korea, from major cities, to hidden hamlets. If you love tea, or are just interested in a little adventure, come and give some of these wonderful locales a visit!
About the author:
Hello, my name is Kevin Horan. But you can call me Kevin H! I am from Cheshire, Connecticut in America. I have been living and working in Korea and Vietnam for 5 years now. I like food, drinking, exploring, reading and finding out about new places, especially the history and culture of other countries. I live in Ulsan, South Korea with my wife and out grumpy Persian cat. I am currently freelancing as a writer and English tutor and think it’s loads of fun! My favorite beer is either Yebisu, Kirin or Filite…or Guinness…or all of them…