Water is a subject that I talk about from time to time, but it is very easy to get caught up in all the myriad discussions about this tea and that tea that you forget just how important water is to your tea drinking experience.The past two days I went to a local shop that just opened recently and which makes new pressings of Yiwu cakes. I like their stuff, and the quality is there. They are also a bit more traditional in their processing, so that the taste is not the high and floral stuff that you often find on the market today. In our conversation, we talked about old teas, and I also drank some old teas with them, including the remnants of a Fuyuanchang Hao from early 20th century. So, in the spirit of sharing, I brought with me some of my aged oolongs on the second day for them to try, since the owner is unfamiliar with a lot of them.
Well, trouble started when we began with an aged baozhong of mine that I know very well, and which yields a pleasant, sweet, and alluring cup. The problem is, that wasn’t really evident at all. Instead, we got a thin, barely there taste with a crisp but weak mouthfeel and only some notes of high aroma. This is not the tea I know – which is why it’s useful to get well acquainted with a tea. Granted, he didn’t use much leaves, but clearly, it was the water.
As I’ve mentioned multiple times before, water is the most cost effective way to make your tea better. So, I went downstairs to the local 7-Eleven, picked up a big bottle of Volvic, and mixed it in the current kettle and used that instead. The improvements are instant and immediate. It explains, also, why the old tea I had on the first day was a bit thin and boring. Turns out they’ve been using tap water, filtered with bamboo charcoal and then just boiled in your typical Kamjove boiler. They know it’s no good – but as a newly opened store, they have to make do with the water for now until they can come up with a better solution, since hauling water from local springs is a really hard thing to do, especially if you don’t have a car. As it is, however, the water is destroying the tea.
The really interesting thing is that I also use tap water, except these days I don’t even bother to filter it and simply boil it in my tetsubin. I think the difference in what I tasted between his brewing and my brewing is mainly down to the tetsubin and the filtering – you can get all paranoid about your water source and how it might contain harmful stuff if you don’t filter it, but the fact is, in most cases the water source doesn’t contain these heavy metals that your filter is built for, but they do take out all kinds of other things that make your tea better. I remember visiting a friend’s place here that used a pretty heavy duty filtration system, and the resulting tea is also thin, weak, and boring. If you’re a frequent drinker of lighter greens, it might work. For everything else, it’s probably a bad idea.
Buying good bottled water (not all are created equal) is probably one of the possible answers, but it’s probably not a great answer. Environmental concerns aside, it’s expensive, it comes in plastic that in some cases leech smell and taste, and it’s bulky. It’s useful in a pinch, but not a long term solution.
They do serve as a useful benchmark though. I like Volvic and Vittel, and for lighter teas, Iceland Spring, which also happens to be a really tasty water just for drinking purposes. Do water taste tests – pour four or five glasses of different waters, including your normal tea water post boil, and taste them as if your life depended on it. You will find that they’re different, and in some cases, your water may contain some really unsavoury tastes and smells. The body of the water will also be different, if you get water with varying levels of total dissolved solids. Use them then to brew the same tea – a tea you know very well. Try it, and you will find the tea you usually drink will taste different in some way. Include a distilled water in the sampling, so you can see how terrible it really is. Your tea with distilled water will be thin and sour.
It makes me think that perhaps more conscientious vendors can make water suggestions, but that might also get too complicated and drive people away. The fact is, water makes a huge difference, and not enough people pay attention to it. Every so often, you’re reminded that it’s important, but then it fades from memory and the cycle repeats itself.