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Forget tea formalities, Woongcha is all about the brew

May 20, 2023 - 16:01 By Kim Hae-yeon
A basic tea set prepared for guests at Woongcha (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

In Seoul’s tranquil Eungpyeong-gu residential district, a hidden gem awaits just a stone’s throw from Eungam Station. Its unassuming exterior shows the warmth within, adorned with a sign resembling the Korean letter “woong,” cleverly fashioned with a cup and a cupboard.

As guests step inside, they are met by Park Jung-woong, 32, the friendly owner of a tea sharing culture space. Here, conversations and small talks take precedence over menus, a rarity in the bustling city of Seoul or metropolitan city cafes.

Since Woongcha’s opening in 2021, Park has passionately upheld a unique vision: to liberate tea culture from the confines of concepts like “mindfulness” or “healing,” and integrate it into our daily lives casually.

"Although I loved the taste of tea, I hated the rigid tea culture as a kid, having to feel obliged to show up with a certain attitude or mindset,” Park told The Korea Herald before beginning his tea experience session, on May 12. “We don't approach coffee or beer with some lofty philosophical motivations, and I believe tea should be no different."

Woongcha's "chachong," a small figurine also known as tea pet, is kept by tea drinkers for good luck. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

This philosophy led him to create Woongcha, where tea is savored without pretense or pressure. At Woongcha’s one-day tea class, it is not merely about the tea; it is about fostering a sense of community and connection. Park invites up to eight guests to embark on some three-hour tea journey.

The class begins by explaining a brief history of how humans began to enjoy tea with some visual materials. Park then guides visitors through the nuances of tea types, from the delicate white to the robust black, encouraging them to uncover their own preferences along the way.

Park Jung-woong demonstrates tea brewing during a one-day class held at Woongcha in Eungpyeong-gu, Seoul, May 12. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

In the second segment of the class, Park introduces a set of tea brewing equipment, elucidating the purpose of each, including a "dagwan," an earthen teapot, and a "gaiwan," a handle-less lidded bowl. Finally, six different types of tea leaves are handed out to guests, to try and practice tea brewing.

"For first-timers, my goal is to let them become familiar with tea." Park said. He went on to share his personal perspective, that Koreans have not fully embraced their own tea culture in the rapidly evolving society, in contrast to the immense popularity of coffee and wine.

"Many Koreans are unaware that black tea is produced in Korea, but in fact it is, and we also boast our unique flavor profiles." Park explained that among tea-producing nations, Korea stands out for having one of the coolest climates. While this may be perceived as a significant drawback by novice tea lovers, it offers a distinct advantage, contributing to the light and delicate nature of Korean black tea, according to Park.

"Tea in hot regions has the potential to develop a bitter and astringent flavor, resulting in a robust taste. However, in Korea, black tea has a contrasting characteristic, being remarkably light and gentle on the palate." Park said, insisting that there are no rules to the degree and extent of taste to each type of tea.

Two cups of Hadong woojeon, a type of Korea green tea produced in Hadong, South Gyeongsang Province (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Despite lagging behind neighboring countries like China and Taiwan in terms of land mass and tea cultivation, Park contends that consumers are not primarily driven by cost-efficiency but rather by the allure of originality and uniqueness.

"Korean films were not the best quality in the early 2000s when I was growing up. Thanks to moviegoers constantly consuming and critiquing them, they ultimately became recognized on the global stage. I believe the same can happen for Korean tea."

Park's journey to create Woongcha was anything but predictable. Having spent three years toiling away as an employee at a major construction company, his life took an unexpected turn one weekend. A cup of woojeon, a distinctively Korean green tea, was offered to him during a visit to a nearby temple.

Various tea related items on display for sale at Woongcha in Eungpyeong-gu, Seoul, May 12. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Park Jung-woong, owner of Woongcha, poses during an interview with The Korea Herald, in Eungpyeong-gu, Seoul, May 12. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

“It was a moment of revelation. I love green tea, but it was not comparable to my green tea experiences usually from teabags.” Park said. From that pivotal moment, he was determined to open a tea culture space at his home ground of Eungpyoung-gu, to study tea and share it with others.

Beyond tea experience classes, Park engages with tea enthusiasts through Woongcha’s social media account, and regularly invites them on tea-centric events and trips.

This Sunday, four Woongcha regulars and Park will go on a two-day trip to Hadong, South Gyeongsang Province, to visit local tea farms.

As Woongcha continues to evolve, Park plans to introduce a new tea subscription package service by the end of this year, which will offer three different tea varieties once a month.

The one-day tea class is 50,000 won per person. Those who mastered the basics of tea can register for the regular sessions via Woongcha's Instagram, by phone or in person.

Park explains different types of tea and their aromas at Woongcha in Eungpyeong-gu, Seoul, May 12. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)