The nice thing about crappy teas is that you can experiment with them with impunity. You can play with your brewing technique (or just brew them without too much concentration) and you can play with the amount of tea you put in. You can also play with the water you use.
Today I brewed some more of that Athelier tea I got, and I tried putting in a little more tea leaves and also used a different water. The result was not particularly good. The tea came out a bit sour. I think all teas are inherently sour (unless it’s really good), and the key is to figure out the point where it turns sour — and not to go beyond that. It’s hard to figuring it out, and underbrewing is safer, although sometimes you’re not getting hte maximum effect from the tea that way. Today I added in too much leaves, but compensating by brewing it a little faster helped and avoided the sourness from the 3rd brew onwards.
Speaking of water though — this is the only other ingredient in the making of tea, aside from the leaves themselves. Generally speaking, I use filtered water that went through my Pur filter (I think it tastes better than Brita). Sometimes, I add in mineral water. The kind of mineral water I use differ depending on the tea. My experience thus far is that a heavier tea requires a heavier water, while a lighter tea (like green or white tea) should be supplemented with a light water. There is, however, no real concensus on this point and I have seen people do all sorts of things with their water. I am by no means an expert on this and am still trying to figure it out.
That water makes a big difference though is definitely true. I have tried brewing a dragonwell with regular filtered tap water, and a water called Iceland Spring which has a low mineral content. On its own, the water tastes sweet and crisp — a hallmark of waters that are light on minerals. Iceland waters tend to be that way (I’ve tried three different ones, and this one’s the most readily available around here). When I tried it with the dragonwell, the one with tap water tastes ok, but the one with the mineral water had a crispness and fragrance that was simply superior. I was drinking that every day, and I thought to myself “wow, why on Earth didn’t I use bottled water earlier???”
For the teas that are heavier in taste, I think using a heavier water adds body to the tea that is brewed. Vittel or Volvic works well, whereas Evian is a little too much. You can try out different kinds of water and see what you like best.
I got into the habit of trying new kinds of water everywhere I go. When I am in Hong Kong, for example, and I want a bottle of water to drink, I try to buy a new one that I’ve never tried before if I see one. Sometimes they are rather expensive, but trying different kinds of water really alerts you to the differences in taste of the water themselves, and gives you a good sense of how they are like. The best way to achieve this is simply to buy a few different brands of bottled water, and do a blind (or not so blind) taste test. The differences should be very obvious if you slosh the water around your mouth rather than simply gulping it down. The test should be, I think, done in room temperature. Too cold, and the tastes are masked. Too hot, and it’s hard to drink a lot of the water to really get a feel for its body and taste.
The reason I don’t use bottled water for all brewing is because it’s rather expensive to do, and for teas that are not that great, the difference is not really worth the price. For the better teas, however, I do tend to use bottled water. Varying it for a tea that you have been drinking also alerts you to the contribution that a water can make to the tea.
One thing though — NEVER USE DISTILLED WATER. It really destroys the taste of the tea, as natural water is never meant to be without minerals. There’s a reason people liked to use spring water for brewing teas, and there are famous springs in China that are good for that. No, distilled water is a bad thing and should be avoided.