Looking for the perfect Korean tea to start your day or unwind in the afternoon?
There are at least 45 to choose from!
Tea is kind of a big deal in Korea. Locals have been boiling random roots, leaves and berries for centuries and have gotten pretty good at it.
We’ll explore the flavors and benefits of Korean tea and:
- Why they’re unique
- History of tea in Korea
- The best types
- How to buy them in the states and elsewhere
I grew up drinking Korean tea (it’s considered water here), and recently did a green tea plantation tour all across the country.
Here’s what I’ve learned!
Korean tea is a broad category covering any hot beverage besides coffee.
You can find teas made of bamboo, pine needles, lotus, dandelion and even mushrooms. There’s a Korean tea for everyone whether you enjoy it at home with friends or at a charming tea house (Nothing beats a warm cup of green tea after a trip to a Korean spa!).
Tea has been a big part of Korean life for centuries. It’s not just about drinking but also enjoying the moment with family and friends while sharing stories. It also makes a great gift!
Korean tea is known for its flavor and health benefits.
The best part of enjoying it is the mindfulness it teaches you. Tea time in Korea becomes a moment of respite from busy modern life.
The experience is even better in Korea where you can enjoy traditional tea houses with menus that extend as far as your imagination.
As a child, my mother would boil barley tea and we’d drink it instead of water, both hot and cold. After school in summer, a cold glass of barley tea is like magic. Korean moms create their own blend depending on the health benefits they need at the time. They’ll add various roots and seeds to barley tea for a rejuvenating cocktail.
In this article, we’ll explore the different types of Korean tea, where to buy them and the best way to prepare them.
The Origins of Tea in Korea
Tea culture in Korea is around 2,000 years old, so no one knows where it began. Here are some interesting origin stories of Korean tea.
The climate and soil in Korea are ideal for tea to grow naturally. Wild species have been found around the country. People have been drinking locally created tea concoctions made from Labrador (rhodenderon) flowers and fruit, including magnolia berry tea and goji berry tea since at least the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC – 668 AD).
First international marriage
My favorite one since it involves a meeting of cultures almost two millennia ago. A princess from Ayodhya (present-day India) sailed to Korea with Camellia sinensis tea and planted it on a mountain bordering Changwon when she married King Suro of Gaya (present-day Gimhae) in 48 AD. Not a bad wedding present.
Buddha’s drink of choice
Some of the earliest Buddhist temples in Korea, such as Bulgapsa (불갑사), Bulhoesa (불회사) and Hwaeomsa (화엄사) claim to be the birthplace of Korean tea culture. They’ve enjoyed tea along with vegetarian dishes for centuries.
A Brief History of Tea in Korea
The oldest record of Korean tea is a 1500 year old Goguryeo (고구려) tomb carving showing a knight drinking tea with two ladies.
Chinese tea products started being imported during the reign of Queen Seondeok (선덕여왕) of Silla (631‒647) when two types of tea bricks, jeoncha (전차) and dancha (단차), were brought from the Tang Empire.
Systematic planting of tea bushes began in 828, when King Heungdeok (흥덕왕) took Camellia sinensis seeds from the Tang Empire and planted on Jirisan (지리산). Tea was used as an offering to Buddha, as well as the spirits of deceased ancestors.
Tea culture really blossomed during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1270) with Tea Offering becoming a part of nationwide ceremonies, such as Yeondeunghoe and Palgwanhoe (연등회·팔관회). Tea towns formed and flourished around temples like the ones you’ll find today in Hadong (하동).
The first record of a Korean tea ceremony describes offering tea to an ancestral god in the year 661.
The ritualistic drinking of tea was refined during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) when the “Day Tea Rite (다례)”, became popular.
Jeong Mongju (정몽주) and other scholars enjoyed tea poetry, dasi (다시), and tea meetings, dahoe (다회).
Other classes caught on and started using tea rites in their own family ceremonies. Tea shops sprouted up making it accessible to all.
It wasn’t until 1924 when the first tea house was created in Myeongdong that anyone could sit and enjoy the beverage in public.
Tea gradually fell out of favor thanks to the rising popularity of instant coffee introduced by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.
In the 1970s, the head monk of Dasolsa Temple (다솔사) on Jirisan, Choi Beom Sul preached the virtues of tea and led its revival.
Why Korean Tea Culture is Unique
Believe it or not, most Korean “teas” are technically infusions since they don’t contain Camellia Sinensis, the official green tea leaf.
When Koreans talk about teas, they can mean any hot non-coffee beverage. “Infusions” are fruits or herbs steeped in hot water.
“Haerang cha” refers to any type of tea that’s made by heating up hot water and putting some sort of leaf or other ingredient into it.
Korean tea is good, but the many infusions are what makes their tea culture really unique.
Even better, these concoctions have amazing health benefits to go with their flavors.
South Korea’s Most Famous Tea Regions
There are four main tea areas in South Korea:
- Jirisan (지리산)
- Boseong (보성)
- Jeonnam (전남)
- Jeju Island (제주도)
They offer different experiences and are all worth a visit.
The three regions on the mainland share a few things in common, they’re all on temperate mountain slopes near the ocean.
Jeju Island tea region is unique since their teas are grown in volcanic soil on the southernmost part of the island in a sub-tropical climate.
Jirisan Tea Region in South Korea
Jirisan Mountain is said to be the birthplace of tea in Korea. The first tea plant is said to have been cultivated at Ssanggyesa Temple (쌍계사) by Buddhist monks. You can still find many wild-growing tea plants in the forests around Jirisan that are hundreds of years old.
It’s also known to grow the most delicious tea given its slight humidity from the Seomjin river and its many streams as well as its moist, gravely and slightly acidic soil.
Be sure to stop by Maeamje Tea Garden (매암제다원), home of the first commercial Korean tea plantation that opened in 1926. The museum has tea pots over 1,000 years old!
- Best tea flavor
Boseong Tea Region in South Korea
Boseong is gorgeous with its rolling hills covered with perfectly manicured tea bushes. It’s very instagrammable and therefore the most popular tea-producing region in Korea. The first commercial tea plantation was actually established in Boseong under Japanese occupation in 1939.
Some of Korea’s finest, hand-crafted artisan teas are produced in Boseong. The farmers pass down their methods from generation to generation. Teas are still plucked by hand, hand-roasted in a wok and then dried in the sun with the process repeated up to nine times.
- Best views
Jeonnam Tea Region in South Korea
The Jeonnam region is a broader area with newer plantations. It’s the northernmost tea growing region in Korea and the cooler climate is especially ideal for producing matcha, a powdered green tea that makes a great latte. The tea bushes have to be dried and covered in shade cloth for weeks before the harvest to produce their trademark robust grassy flavor and deep green hue.
- Best matcha
Jeju Island Tea Region in South Korea
Jeju Island is home to my favorite tea plantation. It’s not a fair competition, since Jeju is a magical place. It’s also a perfect environment for tea with its mild sunlight, adequate rainfall, constant wind, clean water and slightly-acid volcanic soil.
Osulloc Tea Museum is the biggest plantation with peaceful views and heaps of info on Korean tea culture. I always stop by when I’m in the area for a cup and their Green Tea ice cream.
- Best all around
How to Make and Drink Korean Tea at Home
Even though there are elaborate tea ceremonies, Korean tea is surprisingly easy to make. It only takes four steps!
1. Place tea leaves in a pot and pour hot water over them.
2. Wait 30 seconds to 2 minutes until tea leaves open up and color changes.
3. Slowly pour the tea into a cup while gently moving the teapot around to evenly spread the flavor.
4. Hold the cup with both hands and be mindful of the beautiful color and fragrance. Take a small sip and hold it to fully enjoy the flavor. After swallowing, take a moment to notice its aftertaste. Repeat several times until the tea leaves lose their taste.
For even better results, pair it with some Korean traditional sweets like 한과 (hangwa), 약과(yakgwa) and 떡 (ddeok or rice cake).
Traditional Korean Tea Ceremonies
Tea ceremonies known as Darye (다례) have evolved in Korea for 1,500 years. Their purpose ranges from mediation and relaxation to socializing between friends. Sounds like the perfect antidote to modern life.
There are three types of Darye:
- Royal Darye – for the King. It lasts 8 hours and is performed in silence.
- Seonbi Darye – for Confucian scholars. It’s also done in silence.
- Casual Darye – for everyone else. It’s like tea time with sweets and conversation.
Tea is served in beautiful porcelain pots. Bowls and cups were made with religious influence in the past. Celadon or jade green color (Punchong) pottery is for Buddhist tea rituals. White pottery was reserved for Confucian tea rituals.
You can choose the type you like.
There are many variations with more or less items, but 10 basic items in the Korean tea set are:
1) Tea kettle (탕관): A tool for boiling water
2) Large bowl (퇴수기): A bowl to dispose of preheated water or leftover tea
3) Tea container (차호): A container for tea leaves
4) Tea scoop (차칙): A tool to take out tea leaves
5) Tea coaster (차탁): A teacup saucer
6) Teacup (찻잔): A small teacup for drinking tea (In Korea, traditionally odd-numbered teacups are used, while China uses even numbers and Japan uses both.)
7) Cooling bowl (숙우): A bowl to cool down water
8) Teapot (다관): A teapot to brew tea
9) Tea tray (다반 ): A tray for a tea set (다기 세트)
10) Tea towel (차포): Hemp cloth or cotton to place on the tea table
You don’t have to use all these at home, but they make the whole experience more memorable.
There are different ways of pouring and offering tea for females and males.
You always use both hands during the ceremony.
Patience is vital. You always pour tea slowly and deliberately.
At the end of the ceremony, you clean your hands with the remaining green tea.
In winter, green tea foot baths and massages are common and incredibly soothing.
Types of Korean Tea
There are too many types of Korean tea to list here, but we’ve done our best. Korean tea is a magical drink made of boiled water infused with any of the following:
- leaves (such as the tea plant Camellia Sinensis)
- grains and seeds
- mushrooms (mainly used in oriental medicine)
There’s no hard and fast rule about how to drink these. You can combine different types of Korean tea as well. For example, you can add green tea to hyeonmi (brown rice), resulting in a deep and soothing flavor.
Nok-cha (녹차) – Green tea: There are many grades of green tea that depend on when they’re picked. Koreans drink green tea when trying to lose weight. They also place used green tea bags on their eyes to get rid of puffiness in the morning.
Baegyeop-cha (백엽차) – Pine leaf tea: Koreans believe that it helps with digestion.
Bakha-cha (박하차) – East Asian wild mint leaf tea: Just like mint tea, it clears your mind.
Daennip-cha (댓잎차) – Bamboo leaf tea: It’s a specialty of Damyang.
Gamnip-cha (감잎차) – Oriental persimmon leaf tea: It’s rich in vitamin C to boost the immune system.
Maegoe-cha (매괴차) – Rugose Rose leaf tea: This tea is brewed from the dried leaves of sweetbrier.
Ppongnip-cha (뽕잎차) – White mulberry leaf tea: Koreans think ppongip-cha helps prevent diabetes.
Sollip-cha (솔잎차) – Korean red pine leaf tea: Made from the photogenic red pine, this tea is refreshing and feels like you’re taking a sip of a pristine forest.
Ssukcha (쑥차) – Korean Mugwort tea: You can see a lot of ajummas foraging ssuk in the spring. Since ssuk is a wildly grown herb with anti-inflammatory effects, Koreans use it in everything, such as tea, soup, rice cake, or even cosmetics.
Yeonnip-cha (연잎차) – Lotus leaf tea: Some Koreans drink yeonnip-cha for postpartum care. Since the lotus represents purity in Buddhism, monks often enjoy it.
Dohwa-cha (도화차) – Peach blossoms flower tea: Dohwa-cha is just beautiful to look at. You can enjoy pink peach flowers with a hint of sweet fragrance.
Gujeolcho-cha (구절초차) – White lobe Korean dendranthema flower tea: Gujeolcho-cha tastes aromatic and bitter. It will warm you up.
Gukhwa-cha (국화차) – Indian Chrysanthemum flower tea: Many Koreans drink gukhwa-cha to cool down and relax, especially when they have a headache or insomnia.
Maehwa-cha (매화차) – Plum flower tea: Maehwa-cha is known to work well as a hangover cure.
Mindeulle-cha (민들레차) – Dandelion tea: Mindeulle-cha provides powerful antioxidants, and tastes clean with a subtle fragrance. Some might be allergic to it, so be careful if it’s your first time.
Mongnyeon-cha (목련차) – Magnolia tea: Mongnyeon-cha is great as a cold remedy. It’s helpful for a runny nose, stuffy nose, cough, etc. Despite magnolia being a flower, it prevents other pollen allergies.
Yeonhwa-cha (연화차) – Lotus flower tea: Yeonhwa-cha is great for skin and anti-aging. The way this tea is prepared is gorgeous, since it’s after a big lotus flower blooms.
Daechu-cha (대추차) – Jujube: Daechu-cha is perfect for winter as it helps prevent colds. Dachu-cha has a warming effect, so it facilitates blood circulation for people with cold feet/hands.
Gugija-cha (구기자차) – Goji berries: Gugija-cha is good for dieting and skincare. Since goji berry is a Superfood, it’s getting more popular in Korea.
Gyulpi-cha (귤피차) – Citrus peels: Gyulpi literally means tangerine (gyul) peel (pi). Tangerine is a winter fruit in Korea, so it’s great for cold prevention. If you have a weak stomach and drink too much, you may experience heartburn. Drink moderately.
Maesil-cha (매실차) – Plum tea: Every Korean household has homemade plum syrup (매실청). They mix the plum syrup with hot or cold water to drink as a digestion aid. You can also use plum syrup for cooking.
Mogwa-cha (모과차) – Quince: Koreans normally make quince syrup to minimize the bitter, astringent flavor of quince, then drink it as tea in winter.
Hodu-cha (호두차) – Walnut: Hodu-cha is great for energizing your brain and anti-aging skin. Drinking too much may lead to weight gain.
Eunhaeng-cha (은행차) – Ginkgo: Eunhang-cha is believed to be effective for alleviating arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and menopausal disorders, as well as preventing dementia and gray hair.
Omija-cha (오미자차) – Five flavor’s tea: Omija-cha is a burst of sweet and sour flavors that’s a must-try. Most Koreans go to Jeju for their school field trip and end up buying omija-cha for their parents.
Sansuyu-cha (산수유차) – Carnelian cherry: Sansuyu-cha is rich in vitamin A. It’s recommended to drink with honey since it’s pungent and sour.
Seokryu-cha (석류차) – Pomegranates: Koreans believe pomegranate tea is great for women. Many Korean moms going through menopause drink pomegranate tea.
Yuja-cha (유자차) – Citron tea: I love drinking yuja-cha in the winter. My mom makes bottles of yuja syrup (유자청) at home in the beginning of every winter. It’s best for cold mornings.
Grain, Bean and Seed Teas
Bori-cha (보리차) – Barley: When I grew up, I drank bori-cha as water. Koreans boil a big pot of bori-cha to drink for a few days either hot or cold. Cold bori-cha is great for summer.
Hyunmi-cha (현미차) – Brown rice: Hyunmi-cha tastes savory and nutty. It can help clear blood vessels and also be used as a meal replacement.
Memil-cha (메밀차) – Buckwheat: Memil-cha helps strengthen the stomach, boost energy, clear the mind, and remove waste from the intestines. However, it has cooling effect, so pregnant women should avoid drinking it.
Nokdu-cha (녹두차) – Mung beans: Nokdu-cha is great for skincare and detoxifying.
Oksusu-cha (옥수수차) – Corn kernels: Koreans love corn. I drink oksusu-cha to quench my thirst in the summer and love its sweet, savory flavor.
Yulmu-cha (율무차) – job’s tears: Yulmu-cha tastes very nutty and savory. It can be used in meal replacement shakes.
Danggwi-cha (당귀차) – Korean angelica root: Danggwi-cha is known to be beneficial to women.
Doraji-cha (도라지차) – Balloon flower root: Koreans usually boil balloon flower root with pear to drink as a tea. It’s great when you have a dry cough.
Dunggulle-cha (둥굴레차) – Solomon’s seal root: Dunggulle-cha tastes savory and nutty. A lot of Koreans who dislike the flavor of water often drink dunggulle-cha instead.
Chik-cha (칡차) – East Asian arrowroot: Chik-cha is beloved by older generation, although I like the flavor. It’s a great hangover cure. Its more common form is 칡즙 (arrowroot juice).
Gyepi-cha (계피차) – Cinnamon: Gyepi-cha tastes similar to cinnamon, but with more of a spicy note. I love gyepi-cha in the winter.
Hongsam-cha (홍삼차) – Red ginseng: Koreans drink hongsam-cha when they need more energy to get through the day. Younger generations drink it because their parents make them, but as they get older, they start buying it to survive.
Insam-cha (인삼차) – Korean ginseng: Insam-cha is good for people who are feeling cold due to lack of energy. It’s rich in saponin to warm the body and boost immunity.
Ma-cha (마차) – Yam: It’s great for stamina (for men) and dieting (for women). Its more common form is 마즙 (yam juice).
Saenggang-cha (생강차) – Ginger tea: Koreans often drink ginger tea in the winter since it’s great as a cold remedy. It’s best for cold mornings.
Ueong-cha (우엉차) – Burdock root: Many Korean women drink ueong-cha when dieting.
Yeongeun-cha (연근차) – Lotus root: Koreans believe lotus root is great for stopping nose bleeds. I used to eat a lot when I was little.
Where to buy Korean teas in the states and beyond
It’s a great time to shop for Korean teas for those living in the U.S. There are more online stores than ever with English language websites.
Etsy – If you’re looking for refreshing green tea, Etsy has you covered! They have a good selection of Osulloc tea from Jeju, my favorite tea plantation to visit.
H Mart – For other tea varieties that are harder to come by, you can always try H Mart. They have some Korean standards such as wheat, corn, brown rice, citron, ginger and Solomon’s seal tea in addition to Korean food ingredients.
Hankook Tea – You can tell by the romanization of their name that they’ve been around a while, 70 years in fact. While their site may look like it was made that long ago, they have a direct channel to some of the highest quality tea you can find outside of Korea. With some unique tea blends like red ginseng malcha, their store is worth a visit or two.
Soocha Tea – Based in Canada, they also ship to the United States. Soocha means “excellent tea” in Korean, so Soocha Tea means “excellent tea tea” if you’re bilingual. They offer a really nice starter kit with their premium green and black teas.
Best Tea Experiences in Seoul
You don’t have to go far to find a great Tea Experience in Korea. They can be found all over the country. Seoul has some nice beginner courses to help you get started.
Check back later for some recommendations once the pandemic is under control!
Did we miss anything?
Koreans can make tea out of anything.
Let us know your favorite Korean teas in the comments!
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