I can’t believe I got to try these teas. It started last year when a Tea for Me blog post listed which countries produce tea, compiled from a number of sources. Having recently visited South Korea–which was on the list–I wondered if North Korea might not also grow tea. Google turned up a couple of related articles mentioning that they do, so she added them to her list:
Located mostly above the 38th parallel north, the DPRK is not supposed to be an ideal place for tea planting, as tea bushes won’t possibly survive in chilly and arid climate. It is even widely believed that growing tea above 36 degrees north latitude can hardly succeed by traditional techniques.
However, the late leader Kim Il Sung gave instructions as early as in 1982 that the country should produce tea on its own. His successor Kim Jong Il continued to put the task on the agenda and ordered to further advance research in tea growing….
Despite unfavorable natural conditions, the Kangryong green tea was eventually produced on a large scale in Kangryong County in South Hwanghae Province on the western coast between 37-38 degrees north latitude, almost a southernmost place in the territory.
Both green and black tea, as it now stands. Anyone who has visited South Korea in the winter would confirm this really doesn’t seem like it should be possible. From a Seoul climate stat from Wikipedia:
Sometimes, temperatures do drop dramatically to below −10.0 °C (14.0 °F), in odd occasions rarely as low as −15.0 °C (5.0 °F)…
I once visited Everland in the winter, an amusement park near Seoul, and it felt like such an exceptional cold spell was occurring (though that could’ve just related to my tropical acclimatization). So how can South Korea grow tea? It helps to grow a lot of it on Jeju island instead of the mainland:
Typical mild coastal climate with minimum temperatures just below 0 degree celcius even in winter due to warm currents.
So North Korea has probably selectively bred or genetically modified tea plants to survive the extreme cold. Great job! But how can someone go about ordering it? The short answer: you can’t.
Mission Impossible: How to Get Tea From a Closed Country
The internet just doesn’t work there, at least for people outside the country contacting web sites inside it. There are internal official news source sites but they don’t really field questions of any kind. The latest outside news story is about North Korea publicizing a picture of a “miniaturized” nuclear device; not really the best news for some, but I’m setting aside PR concerns to focus on tea here. Besides, the country I live in now and the one I’m from have their own inconsistencies to sort out too.
Apparently, Thailand isn’t so concerned about a trade embargo that they would mind if a bit of tea got out, but one by one, less and less obvious indirect internet search options completely failed. It didn’t work going through a chain of North Korean restaurants linked back to the country (the closest one to here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia), or external groups related to North Korean interests, or through local embassy contacts. I even tried to contact Dennis Rodman.
That did bring up a promising indirect route, though: tour group companies going to North Korea. Essentially, all of them based in China. To make a long story short, Andrea Lee of Uri Tours, the same guide that helped arrange access for Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters, offered to look into it, and she did come through with picking up the tea. From my perspective she did the impossible, but to her it was merely ironing out a few details since that’s her line of work (more on her background and tours there in this article).
Oddly I almost managed to get the tea through a completely separate source, since a Facebook contact An Sonjae, also known as Brother Anthony, has a friend in North Korea, and he offered to look into it. But once Andrea was involved things moved quickly. If anyone is interested in Korean tea, literature, or culture, much of which would almost certainly pre-date the current North / South split, Brother Anthony / An’s work is a unique resource.
Tea reviews: green and black
First, about the green tea: it’s actually quite good! I didn’t see that coming. The taste at first reminded me a lot of longjing. That’s no surprise given the appearance: small leaves pressed flat, even though the smell wasn’t a close match. The dry leaf scent was vegetal, between spinach and dried seaweed, with just a hint of the toasted smell dried seaweed often has. The initial taste was sweet, buttery, rich, and nutty.
I’ve ran across description of longjing claiming the “right” primary flavor should be toasted rice instead of nuts, another type-description one commonly sees. To me this tea tasted just a little nutty at first, with that creamy feel overlapping with a bit of butter flavor element, odd for a green tea. The second infusion had changed, which I’d brewed slightly longer, shifted to more vegetal, to bell pepper. The buttery effect diminished a little but there was still a good bit of background sweetness.
By the third infusion that pepper element had softened and the taste shifted closer to green beans, together with fresh cut grass, and just a bit of mineral background. The seaweed implied by the dried leaf scent never really kicked in.
The tea is nice, reasonably full and sweet, with good complexity. The astringency element was mild, one of the aspects I like about longjing, maybe with just a little less of the soft earthy elements longjing teas can tend to have, more toasted rice element or at least rich background trace of dried hay or the like.
By the third infusion (on green bean taste aspect) the sweetness really hung in there, with a decent length of finish (aftertaste or lingering flavor effect). Green teas sort of aren’t my natural favorite, at least at this point, but this one is nice, with a complexity and balance that works out. I liked this better than any of the green teas I’ve been drinking from Indonesia or Thailand over the past few months, all much earthier, with more typical astringency. A lot of that has to do with more narrow personal preference related to green teas. I like longjing; other styles, not quite so much, although I still drink them, a nice “fresher” tasting counter to more oxidized teas.
The fourth infusion drifted to a more balanced and mixed vegetal scope, really more of what I’d been expecting prior to tasting the tea, still clean in nature, just thinning out a little. Even after a few infusions it was still decently balanced. This might be a good place to mention that I was using a hybrid Western / gongfu parameter style, basically Western brewing with a higher proportion of tea to water and reduced infusion times, not so unusual for me, but not ideal for reviewing in the sense that others might tend not to go with that.
Overall, the tea was maybe a little soft for someone that really likes that slightly edgy astringency effect green teas often have, even when more or less brewing around that using cooler water (which would kind of seem odd to me), but on the whole it was really nice, in addition to being novel. I’m really more curious about what the black tea is like though.
Stay tuned for the Black Tea Review.
John, you should be aware that grows tea grows in profusion at 37 deg N in Iran, and at 37.5 in Rep of Georgia, at 44 deg in Italy, 51 deg in England (Tregothnan Tea Garden) and that I am advising a group of 10 tea growers in Scotland at 57 deg N. On of these growers sold her first tea commercially in 2015. True there are issue and problems with growing so far from the Equator but as they say – every problem is an opportunity for innovation!
Nigel at Teacraft
How amazing that you were able to acquire teas from North Korea. I applaud your persistence. I am fascinated by the length that North Korea went to in search of being able to grow tea in their country. I’m wondering if such efforts might be fruitful for other parts of the U.S. as well.
Thanks for sharing this important tasting with us. I suspect it’s the only tea review from tea grown in North Korea.
You, sir, did some super tea spy stuff here. Well done.
Thanks! I would expect that it is the first review of this tea. I’ve read of other people trying it in a North Korean restaurant chain, which I mentioned in the post, but couldn’t find any description of it online. It would be nice if they could share how they were successful at growing tea there but information exchange is a bit limited.
What’s striking to me other than obtaining a tea grown in the world’s most closed off nation, is that they are growing a good tea there (according to your taste buds), against common thought as to what is defined as prime soil to grow tea plants in. If (and this is a big “if” at the moment), the current state of affairs changes there and North Korea becomes some sort of democracy, we could be looking at a unique region for tea growing in the future.
Thanks for sharing the article John.
Thanks John, very insightful and interesting article.