The only authentic German tea garden is 20 km away from Cologne in Odenthal-Scheuren. Tea friend Anneke Gerrets conducted an interview with the owners Wolfgang Bucher and his wife Haeng ok Kim.
-Would you kindly introduce yourself to our readers?
My interest in tea began when I being trained as a biology lab technician, in 1976, when a colleague brought me a Paul Schrader [a business that sells tea, tea making supplies, rock candy and other sweets through mail order, ed.] catalogue — I still have my first tea set. My enthusiasm about drinking tea — back then, there wasn't such an ample choice specially not of green teas triggered an interest in the tea plant, then camellias, and I started, to collect wild species of camellia in addition to tea plants. My interest grew to encompass shrubs and trees. From 1990 on, I started to work in the bonsai tree nursery Schneider in Odenthal-Scheuern in my spare time. In 1994, I traveled to Korea for the first time, where I met my wife. She is Korean, and in 1997, we married in Korea. It was already during my first trip to Korea that I had the luck to see tee plants in the Togapsa Temple in the Wochulsam Mountains. Ever since, we have been visiting diverse regions in Korea where tea is being grown, from smaller temples to larger growing regions in Jirisan, Boseong or on Jeju Island, and we brought tea seeds from there and started to cultivate them in our garden.
-"German tea" — I must admit that I was a little confused at first. I was already aware that in Germany, tea is being blended (the famous East Frisian tea blends, for example) and packaged, but German-grown tea…that baffled me. How did it occur to you to grow tea in Germany?
It is an exciting idea to cultivate tea plants yourself, isn't it, and why should this not be possible in Germany? We planted the first seedlings in our garden, it was a very shielded space, right near the house. A few years later, we could produce green tea for the first time. But the plants quickly grew too large right here, and we transplanted them to Odenthal-Scheuren, which became a success due to the good soil. Our oldest shrubs were planted into the upper part of the field in 1999. 2008, additional tea plants originating from Japan, China, Sikkim, Germany, Holland and England followed, into the lower part of the field. Here we have the oldest plants of 2000.
Haeng ok harvesting teaseeds
-But is Germany suitable for growing tea at all? What are the requirements for a part of the country for growing tea there?
Here in the Rhine region, we have the advantage of a milder climate, of course. Tea needs a well-drained and acidic soil and plenty of rainfall. Our field is between 4.7 and 5.9 on the pH scale, and the sloped land ensures a good down flow of water. There was relatively much rain in May and June this year, and during the dry periods we could manufacture good quality green tea.
Wolfgang (right) harvesting tea with teafriends
-Did you have problems growing tea in Germany at some time?
During the course of the years we also had rather cold winters. Our tea garden is located at slightly more than 200 meters altitude, and because of that, impacted by lower sub-zero temperatures. Snow is not a problem in principle, because he also has an insulating affect. Prolonged sub-zero periods have a bigger impact. Tea is an evergreen plant that needs water in the soil during the winter, too. For that reason, it is important to keep the area around the roots as free from freezing as possible. We cover the ground with straw several times a year, which serves as insulation, especially now, before the winter. During the sumer, it has the advantage of reducing evaporation and controlling weeds. The majority of our tea plants comes from the Southern part of Korea, and there they have freezing periods, too, but Korean winters are rather dry and cold, and there is no late frost like here. Over the years, since the plants multiply by generation and have diverse genetic characteristic, they partially self-selected, and the most robust ones adapted to the climate very well.
-Mrs. Kim, you hail from Korea. What kinds of tea are most commonly drunk in your country of origin?
In more distant times, Koreans drank predominantly green tea, which has a long tradition in Korea. There are some larger tea growing regions like Boseong, Jirisan, or Jeju Island. Green tea has always been grown in the vicinity of temples and was cared for by monks, who drank it, too. During the past 3-4 years, this tea has decreased in Korea, and more black tea or pu-erh tea is being drunk.
-Question to both of you: Does "real German tea" taste differently than tea that is imported from China, Korea or India?
It's difficult to give an answer to that, because we don't have anything from other tea manufacturers in Germany for comparison. Our tea, and first and foremost our green tea, has something very unique to itself, you might call it character, too. Taste and quality of the tea are caused by many factors like climate, soil, and the tea cultivar, so we still need many years of experience to determine those influences. My wife selectively harvested tea from single tea bushes and turned them into green tea following the same procedure. Out of six samples, two teas were found to have a taste superior to that of the others, so we still can optimize here. Sensorically, our green tea has a fragrant infusion with fresh and slightly flowery notes. In Chinese fashion, it can be infused several times if you measure it out a bit stronger. The half-oxidized oolong tea has the outer appearance of a bathing and a soft and persistent taste. The black tea is mild with some slight sweetness.
-You are manufacturing green tea, black tea and oolong tea. What kind of tea would you recommend a German tea drinker who has drunk nothing but bagged tea from the supermarket, as a start?
Tea is a natural product that has to undergo many stages of work before we can drink it in a cup. If you have witnessed this from the plucking to the brewed beverage, you know how to value that. Bagged tea from the supermarket is not bound to be bad, and, of course, it is easy to brew. But to drink tea also means to take some time to savor color, odor and taste, and to celebrate that with a beautiful tea set. The choice of good teas is getting increasingly bigger, and there are many good online stores that offer it. As a start, I might recommend a darjeeling, first or second flush, and to make sure it's good quality.
The interview was conducted by Anneke Gerrets.
Many thanks to Wolfgang und Haeng ok!
Wolfgang Bucher und Haeng Ok Kim