Many of us drink different teas every day, or even within each day, to keep it interesting. Drinking the same tea, day in, day out, can get tedious, no matter how great the tea is. I also find that tastebuds can sometimes go dull if drinking the same tea too many times. Instead of just varying the leaves being brewed, however, there are many other things that you can do to change the way a tea tastes and how it appears to you. Obviously, brewing method is a big one – a little leaf in a big bowl is going to taste very different from a lot of leaves in a little pot, but one that I think people tend to ignore is water.
I’ve talked about water many times before, and I think one of the key points I have tried to make over the years is that different water suit different teas, adjusted for different styles of brewing. There are, I think, some general rules of what water is better for what kind of tea than others, but when it comes down to it, you have to find the right water for what you want from the tea.
Having said that, it is always interesting to change water sometimes just to give yourself a sense of what different water will do to a tea that you’re really familiar with, or for me yesterday, what the different water did to a tea that I was drinking earlier in the day.
My usual water here in Maine is from municipal sources, and from what I understand, water around here is pumped from underground. The mineral content is high – the highest I’ve seen from municipal sources that I personally have experience with. It’s the first water that leaves obvious, visible mineral deposits on everything I use from kettle to pots. It is also heavy in taste, and when unfiltered, has a nasty sharpness to it that precludes enjoyable drinking. There’s also a slight amount of saltiness in the water.
My tap water actually works rather well with most of the teas I drink – heavier teas, such as puerh and roasted or aged oolongs. It’s really quite terrible for greens and light oolongs, but I rarely drink those anyway, so it’s not a real problem. Yesterday, though, when I was shopping at our local organic food store, I saw that they had Iceland Spring on sale. This is a water that I love – crisp, clean, refreshing, very tasty, and not too expensive. So I got two bottles and intend to drink some tea with it. It has low total dissolved solids, and you can taste the difference (note: I am not saying low total dissolved solids is good, but it’s different and it does what it does).
The tea I was having yesterday was a taobao purchase of a Yiwu cake from about 05 or 06. It was one of many taobao lottery I purchased a while back. I tried this cake once before, but wasn’t too impressed. As I drank it yesterday first with the tap water, it seemed to have improved. I came home with the Iceland Spring, and boiled the second kettle of water to use as a continuation of the initial brewing. The tea changed – not just because it was weaker after a full kettle worth of tea, but also because the water changed. You can think of a tea’s progression through infusions as being on a curve of sorts, and in this case, changing the water led to a break in that curve. The tone of the tea lightened up, both in terms of the physical colour, and also the body, which is pretty consistent with my findings from previous experiments. What’s gained though is a depth in fragrance that was rather muted with my tap water. That took more of a center stage when I brewed it with the Iceland Spring, which gave it a nice, crispness that enhanced or at least brought attention to the fragrance of the tea.
This brings me back to my original point, which is that the water you should use depends on the tea you want. A water that works for you is the best water for the tea. It doesn’t really matter if it’s tap, spring, well, river, or rain – if it works for you, it works. Now, on balance, I think some water types work better with some tea types, and I think there are generally broad agreements as to what water is better than others (distilled bad, spring good). I also think that the only way of finding out, given all the variables there are in tea brewing, is to try it out yourself. Using different sources, buying different kinds of bottled water, and comparing the results is really the only way you can find out if what you normally use is good or not for what you drink. After all, water is the cheapest way to improve your tea.
Another thing that is very underrated but I think very important is to just try the water itself, in comparison with each other. This is very easy and cheap to do. Go find four or five different water sources, pour them into identical glasses, and drink. Don’t just gulp, but drink like you’re drinking tea – taste it, feel it, and pay attention to it. Water is actually quite interesting to drink on its own, and can taste great. You don’t need abominations like this to make drinking water fun.