The importance of water

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.


Comments

The importance of water — 38 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great post!

    Here is my two cents, from same day experience, on my last visit to Yunnan we traveled to Manmai and old/new Mannong villages , we’ve done some regular tourist stuff and then we sit down to taste local ancient tree tea and it was awesome session accompanied by endless topic : what da’ hell is going on with teas and prices …yada yada yada . Then we got back to Xishuangbanna and brewed leftovers of that tea and taste was significantly different …same tea ,same gaiwan but different water….
    I never bothered myself to make strict same day water related comparisons before but that unintended comparison carved into my memory how water makes the difference.

    Well, I tend to disagree with your point regarding filtration systems because if you use tap water and local authorities adding chloramine or/and fluoride you have no choice to filter it our ,Chloramine requires special consideration. Chloramine consists of a tight chemical bond between chlorine and ammonia. It is used because it is very stable not like chlorine, and does not break down in the city’s water pipes. It cannot be removed by aeration or aging. It cannot be boiled out, and it cannot easily be filtered out with basic filter but properly constructed GAC filter handles it easily .

    Low TDS is not only the thing to consider but also pH level of the water makes big difference , because soft water with a pH that is less than 6.5 leaching metal ions, including iron, manganese, copper and zinc from tea leaves much faster and easier than water with higher pH index.

    And one last thing, RO’ed water is the mother of all evil .

    • With your story of different tasting teas in the mountains – the altitude at which you’re making your tea may also make a difference. If you’re high up the temperature of the water at boiling is going to be lower. Of course, the water itself is also changed, so there are a lot of variables there.

      I tend to agree with you that filtration of certain things is necessary, depending on where you are. A lot depends on local conditions. One problem in Hong Kong, anyway, is that a lot of the filtration systems come with some kind of RO process – which kills your water completely, as you already noted.

      Water filters, improperly used, can cause other issues as well – bacteria, etc, so it’s really a double edged sword sometimes. I’m not a huge fan of heavy duty systems. Some light filtering, ok, but in those cases I’m not sure what the efficacy of the system is to begin with.

      • Totally agree about altitude. Manmai and Mannong is something about 1500-1800 meter from sea level and Xishuangbanna is something like 600m let say rounded difference 900-1000 meters and that gives you roughly 2 Celsius difference if i’m recalling correctly… but this still not enough for such difference in taste (FMHO)

        Well, with filtration systems I’ve ate lots of dust chasing proper one , there are many factors like TCO, efficiency ,maintenance , taste of water coming out of filter etc. I’ve ended up with two Watts premier 3-stage which I’ve already mentioned to teachat guys and second one is Everpure single stage I have it as backup because filter replacement hell expensive and it holds only two month , Watts holds 6 month for two filter blocks and year for third stage (bacteria filter) , 60-70$ worth of filters for one year which is not bad .

        • I think you’ll be surprised how much difference 2 Celcius makes. One reason I think tetsubins make better tea is because it keeps water hotter. Of course it’s not the only variable, but it’s a considerable one.

          I think with filters it really depends on what your source is, and what your filter does, and how they fit together. A filter that’s great for one water, I suspect, may not be as good for another, depending on the water source to start. So, experimentation is probably the only way to go.

          • Temperature difference is also very important factor. I need to do some testing with 鉄瓶 but what I’m concern a little bit about high iron ion exchange which can happen inside of tetsubins when you boil up your water because most of tetsubins i’ve seen not glazed with enamel , i seen only small ones Kyushu style with glazing inside but not big ones . It will be interesting to test some teas with water comes out of glazed tetsubin and non glazed one .

          • Glazed ones are going to crack if you boil them, so don’t do it. Only the ones that are unglazed are meant for water boiling. I’ve been using one for five years, haven’t died yet.

  2. I never thought that the water in my tea made a difference in taste. I usually just throw some tap water in an electric kettle and don’t question it, but I think I’m gonna try this taste test.

  3. Zhi Zheng turned me on to Volvic, which I now regularly use as the tap water where I am is atrocious. I have been actively looking for a spring to collect water, as I am not a big fan of the plastic bottles, but they are a bit of a distance. I miss Upstate New York for this reason as there were two springs within a distance of my childhood home, one being right in Troy, which is considered fantastic drinking water. I do remember greatly enjoying it growing up. The next time I visit family I plan on collecting some in glass jugs, just as I once did…

    • Yeah, but hauling water frequently becomes very costly, both in time and carbon footprint and all that. So, unless you live right near a spring, the best solution is probably to try to figure out what works given your constraints.

      • Agreed on the hauling water, which is why it makes no sense where I presently live. I was considering the water where I used to live, as the spring is 1/2 a mile from my family’s house, mostly just to see how it would compare. Of course, yes, what if it is really good… 😉 I did notice that Iceland Spring water can be found near me, so I am going to try that with some teas…

  4. What do you think it is about the mineral content that affects tea so much? Why do the softer waters tend to enhance the deeper flavors and aromas, while harder waters make them more crisp and fragrant?

    • I think you have it backwards – I believe hard water enhance deeper flavours and aromas, while softer water makes them more crisp and fragrant, but at a cost. I suspect that something about the presence of ions in the water pulls things out of tea that otherwise stays insoluble. I’m not sure about the chemistry behind this.

      • Whenever I’ve tried the more balanced, softer water (not too soft), it emphasized the deeper aspects of yancha. Using something like Evian, however, made it thinner, crisp, and very fragrant. Evian also emphasizes the frangrance in dancong.

        Different waters have different effects, though; it seems like different minerals do different things.

          • I need to do more tests with Gh and Kh kits. It doesn’t identify specific minerals, but at least it gets you a little closer.

          • I know that Brandon was experimenting with water while referencing mineralwaters.org to get an idea of how different minerals affect the teas. Of course it’s hard to tell just how much any individual batch will have of anything.

            Do you think there’s anything to the old adage that the best water for a particular tea is the water that the plant got while growing?

      • I know that the catechins also bind with iron, essentially chelating them; I wonder if they bind with other minerals; perhaps at different rates.

        Marshal; is there a chemistry professor that you’re friendly with? 🙂

  5. Water is a very complex and important subject, and not only concerning tea. Spring waters are good indeed for brewing tea (concerning french ones, Volvic is not always considered to be the best because of its strong taste, it depends on which tea, so french tea connoisseurs generally prefer Mont Roucous, or Mont Calm, but I suppose they can not be found outside of France). Each spring has its own taste (interesting indeed to make tests) but the problem is: bottles, not only because of the environmental and financial concerns. Water in a bottle looses a lot of its vitality and qualities. That’s why some filtrating systems happen to be very performant because they give very pure and vibrant water… and it really makes the difference with tea. I have the chance to brew Long Jing with Tiger Spring, freshly taken from the source, which is quite an experience, mostly because the water is “alive”. I have experienced the same kind of sensations with water from a japanese filtration system.

    I have always been very concerned by the water I use for tea brewing (and simple drinking too) and have made a lot of tests to find out the best solution for an every day modern life. It appeared that some filters are obviously very performant. Because finally for me, the most important thing in water is vitality (even if pureness, PH levels, etc… are absolutely important as well). We can also consider the fact: which water for which tea? But that really makes things complicated. So, I guess what we try to find is good water for all purposes.

    • I mentioned the waters I mentioned because they’re generally easily available in many places. There’s a nice spring in Hong Kong too (so I’m told, anyway) but that information is of no use to anyone outside of Hong Kong.

      Different teas do require different waters, so it is important to try and find out what water works best with the teas you like to drink. I guess my point in the post is really that looking for good tea leaves is not good enough – it’s important never to forget about the water part of tea drinking.

        • +1 too…

          I can recomend solution which have worked for me. Move out the city.Move to a place with water which suits to kind of tea which do you drink most:)

          Our tap water is without chlorine or any additives, just water from hills…a little more iron in it so tetsubin is not used now. I prefer to let my water air, in ceramic jar thru night or two…

      • I’m in Hong Kong 😀 Where’s this spring, M? I’ve considered going to the waterfalls here in Tung Chung to get water, and then riding back on my bike–just need to make time for it!

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  7. Even if it is not the main subject here, although it has been mentionned a few times already, one may also consider the kettle used, as it changes a lot of things in the end. The same water boiled in different kinds of kettle (tetsubin, clay kettle, glass kettle, ugly plastic kettle, etc) will lead to different results. One may be good with a kind of tea, but not others. Of course, water ought to be good from the start and it is indeed the most important part. But the ugly plastic kettle also used daily with some bad tap water will transform a nice water into something really poor.

  8. It’s a great information.

    My personal experience. I use RO water as my baseline. And compare it with the other water.

    Brewing equipment is the same, and the tea cups too. My assumption is RO water could reveal maximum the potential of a tea. RO water has less mineral, nearly zero, thus I assume it is the best approach to compare water to water, and tea to tea too.

    I use two gaiwan, same amount of tea, and boiled the RO and the testing water to its boiling point. I observe the variation (intensity of the aroma, liquor color, taste of the liquor) in the time interval of 1minutes, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, and 5 minutes.

        • This is purely from personal experience, but whenever I have used distilled or RO water to brew tea, the result has been thin, flat, lifeless. Some people may like it light and crisp, so to each his own, I suppose, but it seems that water needs some minerals to draw out the good stuff from the leaves.

          • “but it seems that water needs some minerals to draw out the good stuff from the leaves.” My experience tells me I am on your side with this.

            what I want to point out and discuss is apart from appreciating the good stuff from the leaves, I’m also concerning on how to reveal the worst side of the tea. It could help in buying tea.

            bitterness, sourness, awful smell, which could be hid by water (type, temperate), brewing equipment, brewing skill, but it will not go away,

            and my assumption is, if the box is empty, many items could be tuck in. box is the water, the content of the tea is the items. content is comprises of the “good stuff” and “worst side”.

            and and I want to figure out why the good stuff can’t be released in an empty box? or are there available?

          • I know that Brandon was doing a lot of experiments, and ended up favoring RO water for green tea, at one point.

            BC, it’s always worth doing experiments; many things about tea can seem counter-intuitive.

  9. MarshalN: I am very keen on find out the reason and dig deeper into examining and determining a good tea. Would you mind to tell which tea you’ve experienced it using RO water and how did you brew it? I would replicate it here and share my thought.

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