Biroyakcha is a kind of medicinal herb tea (yakcha) produced only at the Bulhoesa Buddhist temple in the hills southeast of Naju, in South Korea’s Jeolla Province. The area around Naju was well known for its tea as early as the Goryeo dynasty (918-1382). Bulhoesa is likely one of the first places where tea arrived in Korea from China around the 7th century, and today tea plants (Camellia sinensis) grow in a semi-wild state in the forests around the temple, under a canopy of Torreya nucifera trees. The shade from these trees, along with the favorable local climate and soil, provide excellent conditions for growing high-quality tea.
To make biroyakcha, tea leaves harvested between late April and early May are pounded in a mortar with medicinal herbs, pressed into small, coin-shaped lumps, and left to dry on sheets of hanji (mulberry paper). As they dry, the lumps acquire a reddish tinge. The dried lumps are fermented and can be stored for long periods. The herbs that go into biroyakcha are elecampane (Inula helenium), ginger, changchul (Atractylodes spp.), clove, Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis), Teucrium veronicoides, and cinnamon. Several of these ingredients are grown in the region. The addition of medicinal herbs makes biroyakcha (and yakcha in general) more mild but also more flavorful than fermented lump teas without herbs. Specifically, sweet flavors from the herbs linger in the mouth after drinking the tea, making yakcha not only medicinal, but also pleasing to drink. Due to the fermentation process and the presence of medicinal herbs, yakcha has a warming effect on the body. This tea is used as a treatment for colds or stomach aches, for clearing the head and revitalizing the body, for cleansing the blood, and as a digestion aid. Before brewing biroyakcha, the lumps are toasted over the fire for a few minutes. Next, boiling water can be poured over the toasted lumps or they can be added to a pot of water and then brought to a boil. Either way, once the water takes on a golden color, the tea is ready to drink. Brewing can be repeated 3-5 times.
In the past, common people typically used yakcha in household medicine, and these teas were readily available in markets in southwestern Jeollanam-do. However, in recent decades, other drinks (such as coffee) have become more popular for recreational purposes and conventional medicine has displaced herbal medicine. Today, biroyakcha is only available at Bulhoesa temple, where about 30 kilograms are produced each year. It is important to protect and promote this high-quality product both in order to spread awareness about Korea’s long tradition of medicinal teas and because it is produced on a small scale with tea leaves from sustainable, forest-grown tea plants.