Water water everywhere

My friend from Beijing, L, recently took on a job to be an editor for a tea magazine that Zhongcha puts out, and he asked me to try to write a column for him. It’s going to be in English and Chinese (the column, not the rest of the magazine) and I thought I should give it a shot in English first before writing the Chinese equivalent. The below is my first attempt — please give any thoughts or comments you might have so that it may get a little better. Thanks 🙂

There are only two ingredients in a cup of tea – the leaves, and the water. The leaves we talk about very often. In fact, I would say the leaves are almost the only thing we tea lovers normally talk about. Water, however, is a much neglected subject, and for water, the preparation is usually the least discussed. Yet, over the years, I have found that the preparation of water and the water used for the tea is extremely important to a cup of tea. This is obvious among those of us who already drink tea often, but it is difficult to say something conclusive about water. While I certainly do not pretend to know anything more than my readers here, I do feel that it might be useful to engage in a discussion of the sort of variables involved in water that seem to affect the making of tea.

The first question about a type of water that we can easily know about is the source. Where is the water from? There are a number of old texts that deal with this question. Lu Yu from the Tang dynasty said that the best water is spring water, then river water, and the worst are well water. Other, later texts generally find that to be true, although there are smaller variations in their beliefs. I don’t think it is necessary to discuss which spring is the best, because that is partly subjective, and it is also rather difficult to pinpoint such things when most of these springs are not reachable by us. However, we do now have the ability to gather water from a source and ship it many, many miles away. So in some ways, we do have such access.

I think the primary differentiator between the different waters that we can usually access is the amount of minerals in each of them. Every water has a unique mineral profile, and in many cases, we can compare them easily as the bottlers who make the water provide these information to us. Without getting too technical into the chemistry, generally speaking I find the ppm of a water a reasonable indicator of what kind of tea it brews, but most of the time water contains mostly Calcium Carbonate (plus whatever other minerals there are). On the low end, I’ve seen water with as low as 10 ppm. This was, I believe, a water from a small island on the south side of Japan that supposedly had pristine conditions. On the hard side, you have famous waters like Evian, or even the new water from Tibet, that have hundreds of ppm of minerals in the water.

So what does it do for your tea when you brew teas with different hardness? I have done a test before using two different types of water and brewed them in an exact same way, using the same equipment. The tea used was a Yunnan black tea. This picture is the result

The water I used for the tea on the left is the new 5100 water from Tibet, with anywhere from 482 to 725ppm of dissolved solids in the water. On the right hand is the Nestle water from Shanghai, which I believe is a public source water that is treated. They don’t provide a specific amount of dissolved solids, but I believe it is quite low.

If you’re not convinced of the fact that this was a product of the water, and not of other variables, such as the amount of leaves used or the time the water spent in the tea, I brewed the next infusion by switching the waters around.

I think this shows that the effect of the color of the tea is mostly a product of the water difference, and not anything else.

The taste of the teas were also different with the two waters. The cup of tea made with 5100 is softer, rounder, fuller, with a heavier taste and seems to have some more depth. The tea made with the Nestle water, on the other hand, is a cleaner tasting cup, with higher notes and less of the body and depth. Yet one might say the tea taste crisper, and some may prefer this type of taste. I do, however, think that with more minerals there does seem to be an ability by the water to pull out more flavor from the tea.

When I was in Beijing for a year doing research, one of the things that always was a problem was the water used at the tea shops. Some shops use very good water that make the tea taste good, but some use very bad water that are basically filtered or even distilled water. That can make a tea taste very flat or boring sometimes, and so when I buy tea, I often will first buy a little bit to take home with me to first taste it at home, using water that I am familiar with, before I buy more. Unfortunately, for teas that seem bad at the shop, sometimes it is possible to miss a very good tea because the water they used was bad.

There was one instance when I remember such a thing happening, although in that case, it was a tea I brought to somebody’s shop, this time in Hong Kong. I had a tea with me, a Yiwu, that I thought was very good. I took it with me to the shop and we made it, and instead, the tea came out very flat. There was a very low level of aroma, and the body of the tea was also thin. It was not active in the mouth, and was barely showing any sign of strength. I was mystified, because the tea was certainly much better than what I was tasting in that cup.

Then I realized that they use a very advanced filter system for their water. The water filtration system is so good, in fact, that probably very little minerals were left in the water at all. If my theory that higher mineral content tend to “pull” more flavinoids out of the tea, then a very low content would mean a flavorless tea, which was true in this case. I walked outside to the closest convenience store, and bought myself a bottle of Volvic, a French mineral water. I took it back with me to the shop and we continued brewing this tea with the Volvic, and instantly, the taste improved dramatically. The tea now had a throatiness and a depth that was lacking before, and it tasted much more like the tea that I know. The shop girl, who is a good friend of mine, was surprised to find it so different.

What the above story illustrates is that water can sometimes be “too good”. Just because it is filtered for a million different things does not mean that it will make good tea. I believe that a good water requires a certain minimal level of minerals in it. There are some ways of fixing this problem. One is to use stones that can be placed in a kettle or a water container and which helps put some minerals back into the water. Another is to buy some mineral salts and add them to your water.

So what water is good with what tea? I can’t say for sure, for, again, it is a matter of taste, but I do feel that there are some general rules that might apply a little more universally. I think for teas that are delicate and light, which includes most green teas and white teas, as well as some lightly fermented oolongs, the water used should probably not be too heavy in mineral content. Using a crisp water would accentuate the freshness of the taste of the tea, and often will even make the tea feel cool to the mouth, which is sort of what you want anyway from a green. Using water that is too heavy for such a style would create a tea that seems unbalanced.

On the other hand, I think heavier teas, including blacks, darker oolongs, and puerh (and I put even young raw puerh in this category) water that has a bit more minerals in it would be beneficial.
In these cases, there is usually a depth of flavor and a complexity that is being sought after, as well as potentially a good solid body in the liquor itself, and even down to a deep, rich color for the eyes. Both of the teas that I tested for this purpose that I mentioned above benefitted from the heavier water.

The key here is that I believe there is no single water that works for all kinds of tea. Water that is good for green tea is probably not going to be good for black tea, and vice versa. Again, what “good” means really depends on the individual, and some people may just like the lightness that comes with a black tea brewed with a crisp water. But I think as a general rule of thumb, we need to adjust our water as we change the tea being made.

How to pick water that is available is obviously a matter of great concern. One is simply through trial and error. Try widely, and eventually you will find one that works for the tea in question. Everybody has their favourite teas, and in those cases, maybe a little more experimentation would be useful. Since each person’s favourite tea is probably also the one that he or she knows the best, it also makes experimentation more fruitful, as any change in taste due to the water tasting different would be more obvious.

More importantly though, I think tasting water on its own, without the tea, also helps develop a sensitivity in understanding the water’s characteristics. Whenever I am traveling I will always go to the local convenience store and buy bottled water that I have never tried before. Tasting them, sometimes side by side or one after another, can tell me a lot about the way different waters taste and the range of possibilities that exist. Doing a blind taste test at home, with maybe three, four, or five different kinds of water in identical glasses for taste, is also one good (and I should add, fun) way of getting a better sense of how different waters taste. When doing this, it might be useful to include the normal water that one uses for brewing tea, which in our case is most likely filtered tap water. Doing so will help locate exactly where on the spectrum the tap water is.

I have yet to do this yet, but I think at some point it might even be useful to try water cocktails – mixing different waters together to get something else out of them. I don’t know if it is something worth trying, but it’s definitely a thought. After all, teas are regularly mixed to maintain consistency from batch to batch. I don’t see why water can’t be mixed that way.

This is just the water itself. We haven’t even mentioned the preparation of water for brewing, but that is another topic entirely, and should probably be discussed on its own.


Comments

Water water everywhere — 17 Comments

  1. Good job on the first draft! I’ve read other articles on the type of water best used for tea, but I don’t think I’ve seen a side-by-side comparison of teas brewed with different mineral contents. For most of my tea at home I use filtered tap water and I’m not able to taste much of a difference between that and unfiltered tap. I’ll definitely bring a couple different types of spring water home to compare with now. Especially since I mainly drink pu-erhs and darker oolongs.

    I also enjoyed your personal story. It brings a warmth to the article that makes it more readable. Also, have you had a chance to try bamboo charcoal for enriching your water?

  2. I enjoyed this very much; the side-by-side pictures are absolutely fantastic! Any skepticism I had about the effectiveness of different waters has been all but dispelled, thanks to those dramatic photos.

    -Brent

  3. This is an area of interest for me as well. It’s been said that the best water to brew a tea with is the water it grew up with. To me this makes sense, but purhaps not in such a direct way. I’m assuming that the farmers over time grew and selected tea plants that did well in that area and also, the ones that tasted best to them. Of course since they are brewing with the local water…

    Just a thought. 🙂

  4. Dear MarshalN,

    Thanks very much for sharing the article with us. I’d love to see the final Chinese version too, if possible, as it would be good for my learning Chinese.

    I ran some similar comparisons a while back, too. Though Volvic was undoubtedly better than the vendor’s tea in your example above, I found it to be as similarly poor as Evian in producing a good brew. These two waters are high in mineral content in order to make them taste fresh and interesting as stand-alone beverages. As you say, this “hardness” prevents them from releasing the full complexity of a tea.

    In the UK, at least, bottled water is sold with the primary intention of being a stand-alone beverage. Thus, the more expensive the water, the greater the mineral content, generally. This makes for an interesting consequence in that the best spring waters for brewing tea (certainly here in the UK, anyway) are those that are *not* too expensive. Supermarket “own brand” water (especially Tesco “Scottish Mountain” and Sainsbury “Caledonian Spring”) falls into this bracket, and makes far superior tea than Evian, Volvic, etc.

    I found that tap water / Brita-filtered tap water produces a “muddy”, flat brew, which makes most tea taste uninteresting, no matter how awesome the leaves.

    Evian/Volvic emphasise the crystalline, sweet top-notes – what I imagine to be sharp transients in the imaginary “aromatic spectral content” of the tea’s composition.

    The supermarket “own brand” waters occupy a very pleasing middle-ground, preserving the high notes of the more mineral-rich waters, while encouraging the broader, smoother, “wider band” components of that aromatic spectrum.

    Toodlepip,

    Hobbes

  5. Brilliant article, and the pictures are easily worth several thousand words. I thought the TDS range on the Tibetan water was interesting. I knew from my barista days that a TDS of one to two hundred ppm was ideal for the coffee, so that was what I had been shooting for with my tea water. Indeed, my favorite water has become Volvic (when I can afford it), and the TDS of that lingers somewhere around 110 ppm. My tap water, on the other hand, is somewhere around 500 ppm and makes absolutely crap tea.

    Do you think it might matter what the ratio of solids is? My tap water, for instance, is practically all calcium and magnesium carbonate, and it gives a dreadfully dull tea. The Volvic, on the other hand, tempers its 110 TDS with about 30 mg/l silica and gives that nice, rounded result. On the other end of the calcium/silica spectrum, Fiji water has about 160 TDS with 83 mg/l silica, and I find it gives a shallower brew–lots of high notes, little depth.

    What do you think?

  6. Great and useful article, particularly the pictures and anecdotes. Two small areas where I would be interested in a bit more: (1) I love the historical information re: Lu Yu but I wonder how his thoughts hold up in light of your other analysis of water content–might be worth hypothesizing on why, for example, spring water would be different from river water and well water; (2) In terms of boiling stones, I’ve seen this done but certainly there are some kinds of stones that are better than others, and, as another commenter mentioned, I’ve heard about boiling charcoal. I guess I would be interested in a bit more detail about how people change their water and why these methods work or don’t. Actually, I just thought of a third thing, which is an identification of other minerals go into water that might affect its taste. I know nothing at all about this topic, but understanding it more might help explain why, for example, boiling certain types of stones or charcoal might add certain mineral content to the water (e.g., iron? I guess a dictionary definition of “mineral” would help me too since I don’t actually know what could be considered a mineral and what might not be considered a mineral–are there nonmineral components that contribute to water’s taste too?)

    Anyway, thanks a lot for sharing this with us and I hope you give us more details about the magazine when the article is published.

    Cha Bing

  7. Lots of comments!

    Djin: Yes, I’ve tried charcoal. They seem to soften the water a little, although I’m not sure how. I also think it takes a while for the water to go through that process, so you need to leave it around with the charcoal inside for a while to get that effect.

    Brent: That’s a particularly extreme example, as the 5100 water is loaded with stuff. But I think once you work your way in, you will still notice differences with each and every water you use.

    Tenuki: Given how lovely China’s water can be these days, I’m not entirely sure if I really want to use the same water that the plants grew up with….

    Hobbes: I think it really depends on what you look for in your tea. I’ve found that a heavier water will actually balance out some of the sourness that I get sometimes with aged oolongs — whereas a lighter water will accentuate those notes too, along with other higher aromas. Since sourness is undesirable and often quite nasty, I think in those cases heavier water is warranted. I think Volvic is on the side of potable when brewed with tea, although it is getting closer to being too high. Evian, on the other hand, is not. Vittel, when mixed in with a bit of regular tap water (filtered) can actually work remarkably well, but Vittel has an awful distributor in the US so it’s not easy to find it around here.

    Mary: Yes, I think 500ppm stuff will make crap tea, and you will also get that famous “film” on your tea…. it’s not that pleasant. As for the precise balance of minerals, I really haven’t looked too closely into that. I am not sure if I agree entirely that Fiji is shallower — I find Fiji to be quite adequate for making tea, for a widely available water, anyway. However, this might get us into the water prep business, which is an entirely different subject matter all together….

    CB: 1) You’re right, I should say a little more about that. 2) I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but since you basically have no idea what kind of stones are being sold to you (nor do the vendors necessarily know) it is really a crapshoot. For all we know, it could be stuff laced with deadly poisons. That’s why I try to avoid using those stones, however good they’re supposed to make the water taste. The theory is that having those stones will add to the total dissolved solids in the water, but I think that is only really useful when your water starts out with a low amount of stuff in it.

    I’ve also noticed with my use of the tetsubin that my water has changed. I think for some teas it works better, for others a little less so.

    As for the magazine itself — I know almost nothing about the mag, because he hasn’t really told me much. All I know is that it is something published by Zhongcha, and currently, is not widely circulated — only about 3000 copies or so, I believe, are printed, and sent to members of some NGO type tea group in China as well as some other select readers. I think the plan is to eventually get it to the newsstands, but that’ll still basically be a Chinese magazine, methinks.

  8. Yes I have tried Maifanshi, but I’m not entirely convinced of their efficacy. The teashop in Hong Kong also uses Maifanshi. That didn’t make their water any better.

  9. How about the Water Vessel, which Mattcha had mentioned a while ago? Vessel (earthen ware) can soften water also?
    Aging water is something interesting, which I remember Lu Yu did documented in his text. I am sure tea vendor will be selling 15yrs. vintage water very soon : P
    -Tok

  10. @MarshalN – charcoal tends to absorb minerals and salts from the water – we use it in aquarium filters to clean the water – and so as it removes from the water salts/minerals the water tends to become softer.

    A food for thought article and highly commendable: however the trouble with water, like tea, is that the quality is not always consistent even municipal tap water vary with season and source contamination. Most of the tea shops or coffee shops tend to put the tap water through filters to get some modicum of consistency, remove chlorine etc.  At home we can be as particular as we like, and when travelling its all over the place I guess.

    Then consider the containers you put the water in, as water just tends to dissolve material easily even if it is just an exchange of ions etc or retian certain aromas especially if it starts off very soft.

    I’ve even made tea and coffee with distilled water before … maybe we should take this as benchmark because it is easily repeated!

  11. As w/most things in life I belive there are some who notice the quality of water in there tea (and the quality of their water in general), an others who either don’t or they think you’re being odd/pretentious.  And, different tastes will abound-thank goodness.  We learn to see the subtleties in many aspects of live if we choose to do so.  Ther is a long standing argument in which I belive that, my tea that I drink at home, and often take w/me on vacations seems often not to be as tasty away from home.  It comes with me for comfort reasons, and I notice when it’s off.  My in-laws live in an area where the water is bottled and sold-I like neither their well, nor the bottled version.  I find it has too many minerals for my Gyokuro Asahina Tea as well, making it taste rough and heavy, like a mud puddle instead of a fresh spring rain.  They think I am nuts.  People pay money for their water, and there are legal battles ragging over the water rights.  Just because it is worth more$ dosen’t mean it’s always worth more.  Recreate on the lakes that has worth to many-“you” don’t need to sell it.  Cheers to a well thought out article that really captures the details I oft cannot communicate. 

  12. With more thought I am going to begin testing the theory that I enjoy Japanese green teas more b/c I had been using filtered water, and that to possibly enjoy Chineese greens more (often) I need to use different water (more minerals and or particulates).  Thanks for the food for thought and experimentation!

  13. Pingback: Variety is the spice of life | A Tea Addict's Journal

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