Preparing Tea – A Korean Way

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I begin this post with a little apprehension knowing that this will be long explanation for what is for many a very simple and natural act.  Reading this then for some readers may be a little like reading the directions for tying ones shoes. That is why I’m including the video. It is better shown than discussed.  My video example comes from a tea master. Tea masters are wonderful and important tea culture icons that are known for ceremony.  But this demonstration is more an example of a thoughtful organized procedure than ‘ceremony. They believe the process of preparing tea a Korean way, any Korean way, should be very natural and unpretentious. That naturalness also includes tea ceremonies – at least Korean ones.  

Since I am not a tea master, I undertake this post with the exact opposite feeling from that which should be present when preparing tea a Korean way.  A Korean tea preparation should/must be done with calm and ease.  This description is being written with neither.  Simply because I know that I don’t know enough. So in hopes of strengthening my own tea preparation skills, and perhaps yours as well, I persist.  

A little background on this post may be interesting, if not that important. Sadly, Tea Tour Korea 2015 did not have enough participants to form a group*.  Therefore, we were not able to stay in Korea to experience the full range of Korean teas.  Even so, we discovered that 2015 was an extraordinary year for Korean tea since we were able to try a number of early picks from different producers.  In a word, delicious!

We were also able to enjoy some wonderful tea experiences that grew out of the Korean Ceramic Tour we did host.  One of these experiences came as a result of extending the ceramic tour for a small group to the province of Jollanamdo.  Jollanamdo, or Jeonnam as it is also called, is rich in both pottery and tea.  Over the years, we have developed a number of close friends who live and work in Gangjin, Haenam, Mokpo, Boseong and other areas of this historically rich province.

When our basic Korean Ceramic Tour 2015 ended, a few of us extended the tour and boarded an express bus to Gangjin.  On arrival, our friend the potter Kang Kwang Mugg drove us by private car to Mokpo.  Mokpo was having their annual ceramic fair.  The fair and visit in Jollanamdo resulted in a series of great experiences. We’ll share some of them in future posts but possibly on other blogs.

Our 2015 tour group was composed primarily of International ceramic artists who had just visited a number of ceramic artists throughout Korea, most of the Korean artists either specialized in or, in addition to their regular work, made tea ware. It is my experience that most international ceramic artists also make some tea ware.  But few know how to prepare tea the Korean way, so I had asked my Korean friends if it were possible to have one of the tea masters we were visiting at the fair to show our group how to prepare and serve tea the Korean way. I wasn’t asking for a full ceremony but simply some of the basic steps for preparing Korean tea.   

I want to thank Ju Hae-Seong from the Korean Tea Culture Association for graciously providing this presentation.  We met Master Ju through Master Jang Eun-Hui the wife of the internationally acclaimed celadon artist Jong Ki Bong.  All are from Haenam.  It is Jong Ki Bong’s teaware she is using for this demonstration.

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The presentation does exactly what I had hoped it would do, show us a Korean way to prepare tea. Note that this is one of the natural and really simple ways Koreans prepare tea and can be called a ceremony –  the every day tea ceremony.  Those who are interested in learning a way to prepare tea as Koreans do can gain a great deal from studying this video.  Hopefully my notes, although cumbersome, will also be of some help.  Note the title is “A Korean Way” not “The Korean Way”.  There are many individual variations on the process you see here.  However the basic elements will be similar.  In this case the tea is nokcha or green tea.

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Since some items in the above image are NOT necessary for simply preparing tea, I should point them out to reduce any confusion you may have.  In this image, those items NOT necessary include the small vase, often a bottle form, sitting on the far left on a natural stone stand.  On the same wooden tea table is a leafing vine or branch, two sets of jeotgarak or chopsticks with duck jeotgarak holders on mats and a covered dish for tea ceremony treats or tea desserts (perhaps tteok (떡) or rice cakes).  Note that these are all on a naturally formed wooden tea table.  The stone stand for the small vase, the vine or leafy branch and naturally formed wooden tea table all point to the underlying theme of Korean tea including the tea ceremony – it must be natural. Again these items are NOT a necessary part of the simple serving of tea that this post and video intend to illustrate.  So set them aside in your mind for now and concentrate on those that to varying degrees are necessary.

Let’s look at the tea ware she will be using.  This is rather formal tea ware set. Again, it was made by the famous celadon artist Jong Ki Bong, the items include from left to right: (our view)

  1. A source for hot water. In this case a thermos since electricity is not available and wood or gas would be impractical in this outdoor festival setting.
  2. Behind it on the right of the server (our left) is a waste water bowl. In less formal settings a bucket hidden from view might be used.
  3. On the slightly higher table in front of her are:
  4. A stack of ceramic saucers, also to her right.Sometimes wooden or cloth cup stands are used or none at all.
  5. Behind the saucers (her view) is a cooling teapot. Note this teapot was made without a lid. Often a small pitcher or historically a cooling bowl would be used.
  6. Slightly to the left of the saucers (her view) and closer to the server is a simple white cloth.
  7. Next, directly in front of the server, is the infusing teapot.
  8. Behind the infusing teapot (server’s view) is the teapot lid stand.
  9. Behind the teapot lid stand (server’s view) is a small tea caddy.More informal tea servings might simply have the bag of loose leaf tea or a box with the bag of tea in it.This tea caddy is a ceremonial tea caddy and not one for storing tea.
  10. To the right (our view) are 5 cups.Typically a Korea tea set has 3 or 5 cups.

Notice there are not 4 cups.  There are at least three reasons for avoiding the number 4. The first reason is that the sound for the number 4 is the same as the sound for the word for “death” in Chinese and those languages that have similar roots like Korean.  Often hotels in Korea and China use the letter F instead of the number 4 for the fourth floor.  So it could be bad luck to use 4 cups. The second reason, and for me the more interesting one, comes from Buddhism.  If you were to serve tea to a single guest you would use 3 cups.  If you were serving tea to three guests you would use 5 cups. Therefore, you would have a cup for each of your guests and a cup for yourself.  The remaining cup is for Buddha. The third reason is that if you are serving tea you often have 2 or 4 guests and the remaining cup is for you.  If you talk with tea connoisseurs you will likely get one or more of these answers for why Korean tea sets have either 3 or 5 cups. 

Lets watch the video:

The video in summary:

  1. Hot water is poured into the ‘cooling teapot’.
  2. The lid of the infusing teapot is removed and placed on the teapot lid stand.
  3. Hot water is poured from the cooling teapot into the infusing teapot.
  4. The lid is replaced onto the infusing teapot and hot water from the infusing teapot is poured into each of the cups until the hot water fills about ¾ of the cup.

This process is heating of the “cooling pot”, teapot and teacups is a very important step in preparing Korean tea.  The continuing flow of the tea’s preparation was interrupted when a Korean watching the process suggested that someone should explain in English what was happening. 

  1. Hot water for the tea is poured into the cooling teapot.
  2. As that water cools to the proper temperature, the server removes the lid from the infusing teapot and places it on the teapot lid stand. For nokcha or green tea, this water temperature is usually between 60C-70C or 140F-158F.We often round 158F to 160F but my preference is 158F.
  3. Then she took the tea caddy that contains the loose leaf tea into her hand, removed the lid and with a teaspoon placed two scoops of tea into the infusion teapot. She replaced the lid on the tea caddy and returned it to its spot.
  4. Now she takes the cooling teapot containing the hot water and pours it into the infusing teapot. Returns the cooling teapot and places the lid on the infusing teapot.
  5. Grasping the white cloth in her hand she methodically empties the hot water from each of the now heated teacups into the waste water bowl. She wiped the drip of water from each cup in turn. The emptying of the water from each cup in turn provides infusion time for the tea.

A tea master knows precisely the amount of tea in relation to the size of the teapot and how long the tea should be infused.  In this case the teapot is relatively large, the amount of loose-leaf tea is not great for the size of the teapot.  My guess is there are about 3g possibly 4g of tea in the infusing teapot.  The length of time it took to empty the five cups was approximately 1 min.  That is proper for this larger teapot with that amount of water and that amount of tealeaves for nokcha.  Notice I didn’t say it was “correct” or “exactly right”.  The infusion of tea is an art not a science.  The relationship between this particular tea, the amount of tealeaves to volume of water, water temperature and infusion time are subjective and developed according to the taste and experience of the one preparing and serving the tea. Some guidelines for infusing tea are appropriate such as don’t use boiling water for green teas, keep the temperature for green teas lower than oxidized teas etc.  But many factors are at play including of course the selection of water itself.  How can I tell you precisely how to brew the perfect cup of generic green tea on a blog post?  There are simply too many variables.

  1. Now the tea is infused. The tea preparer begins to pour tea from the infusing teapot. Notice that about 1/3 of the tea for each cup is poured into each cup.  This is repeated three times to insure that the contents of each participants cup is the same.

We have seen the use of a cooling vessel, infusing teapot and cups.  Each was heated with hot water that was discarded. For me the warming of these items is essential for good tea.  

In my mind, whatever part you think of as ceremony or ritual is simply the efficient use of time in preparing this tea properly.  Tea masters consider this the Everyday Tea Ceremony.   In any case, the timing of this presentation was such as to efficiently cool the water for nokcha and brew the tea using organized efficient steps. This is the way I brew tea for guests but I am not a tea master, just a potter that enjoys a well brewed cup of tea.    

The great Korean Buddhist tea master Cho Ui once said simply, “Make tea and drink it.”  When preparing tea a Korean way, keep these things in mind.

We are forming a group now for our next Tea Tour Korea contact us to learn more and to reserve your spot.

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