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It’s tea time again for historic Hadong

A large green tea field stretches out from Hwagye Market to Ssanggye Temple in Handong, South Gyeongsang. Hadong is Korea’s most important region for domestic green tea production. By Shin Dong-yeun

Korea’s love affair with green tea began in Hadong during the Silla period, when the first green tea seed in the country was planted there.

For five days starting from Wednesday, the biggest celebration of tea in Korea, the Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival, takes place in Hadong, South Gyeongsang.

From top: A memorial for the first tea tree planted in Korea stands near Ssanggye Temple; visitors participate in a tea ceremony held at the Tea Culture Center in Hadong, South Gyeongsang; a Hadong tea plantation employee rubs freshly roasted green tea leaves together during the tea production process.

Korea’s love affair with tea began in this town when the first green tea seed in the country was planted there. According to the ancient Korean book “Samguksagi” (“History of the Three Kingdoms”), a Korean envoy to China returned home during the Tang Dynasty with a tea seed and was ordered to plant it on Jiri Mountain by King Heungduk.

That small action changed the character of the region forever. Ancient government texts from the 19th century state that there was a stretch of tea plantations that ran 16 to 20 kilometers (10 to 12.4 miles) in Hwagye-dong, Hadong, and that it was the largest tree plantation area in the country, a distinction it holds today. A memorial dedicated to the all-important first tree is also located in the town, and the oldest living tea tree, which is over 1,000 years old, is nearby in Jeonggeum-ri.

Hwagye-myeon is the core of Hadong’s tea tree business, with numerous farms and tea houses there offering guided green tea tours for most of the year. There are half-day and full-day tours in which visitors learn how tea leaves are picked from the field, dried and packaged.

On the tours, picking tea leaves alone takes around an hour, but according to Kim Dong-gon, owner of Ssanggye Dawon, a tea farm in Hadong, it is difficult for first timers to endure the hour-long picking.

“Most people usually get out of the field within 10 to 20 minutes, and almost nobody stays for the full hour,” he said.

When the picking is done, the next step is deokgi, which involves dehydrating the leaves. After weeding out stems and old or excessively large leaves, the tea leaves appropriate for green tea making are roasted in traditional cauldrons at around 250 to 350 degrees Celsius (482 to 662 degrees Fahrenheit). It is important to make sure that the leaves are neither burnt nor undercooked.

“To avoid burning the leaves, you need to roast one to three kilograms [2.2 to 6.6 pounds] of leaves for four to five minutes, stirring vigorously,” Kim said.

A bowl of corbicula clam soup from a Hadong restaurant.

When the roasting is done, the leaves are rubbed together so that they cool slowly and their nutrients are more exposed. The rubbing is also crucial in forming the finished tea leaves into the appropriate shape. During this stage, the leaves are wrapped in a cotton cloth, which is put on a straw mat and rubbed together. If the rubbing is too harsh, the leaves turn to crumbs, but if done too softly, they don’t dry into the proper shape.

The leaves are then put into a tea drying machine, although in the old days, they were sunned dry. After an hour or so, the leaves have to cook down in deokgi again, but now at 80 degrees Celsius for two to three hours to intensify the roasted flavor of the tea.

In Korea, green tea varieties are categorized into four groups according to when the leaves are picked. Woojeon tea is the highest quality of the bunch, in which the tea is made with leaves that are picked during the first tea harvest season in April. Woojeon is very pricey, with 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the tea regularly going for well over 100,000 won ($88).

Sejak tea comes next in line. The name derives from shape of the tea leaves, resembling a sparrow’s tongue. Around 100 grams of sejak goes for 50,000 to 80,000 won.

Joongjak tea leaves are a bit bigger than sejak and a grade down in quality as they are picked in May. Daejak tea leaves are picked in June. Both joongjak and daejak tea are quite affordable, at less than 50,000 won per 100 grams.

The best way to store green tea, according to experts, is to place the tea in a cool, odorless spot or in the refrigerator and pack the leaves in a zip lock bag.

Along with tea making tours, visitors can take part in traditional tea ceremonies at the upcoming festival. On Friday, Hadong’s most renowned tea masters, including Kim Dong-gon, Park Su-geun and Hong So-sool, will participate in talks and lead a tea ceremony held outside in Pyeongsa-ri near the Sumjin River.

One of the most popular tea ceremonies of the festival will be held at the Tea Culture Center near the entrance of Ssanggye Temple. The ceremonies are taught by Kim Myeong-ae, who stresses that green tea must never be poured one cup at a time. Instead, the tea should be poured in a zigzag pattern; that is, tea cups are placed side by side on the table and the tea poured from one end to another three times.

“If you pour the tea all at once, the flavor and concentration of the green tea is low, but if you pour in a zigzag pattern three times, the taste comes out more evenly,” she said.

The oldest person participating receives the cup of tea poured last, which is the opposite of how Koreans pour alcohol, when eldest is served first. Custom dictates that when receiving a cup of tea, one must hold the cup with the right hand and support the right hand from the bottom with the left.

The Tea Culture Center takes Internet reservations only for the tea ceremonies at www.greentea.co.kr. There are four ceremonies a day, and one ceremony can receive up to 150 people. Participation is free.

Three places in Hwagye-myeon that are most popular for tea tours are Sansin Maeul (055-880-2767), Jeonggeum Maeul (055-883-2911) and Ssanggye Dawon (055-883-2449). A half-day tour costs 15,000 won per person and a full-day program, including lodging, is 80,000 won ($70.50).

By Lee Seok-hee [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]

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