The taste of water

Most of your cup of tea consists of water – and what water you use has a huge effect on how your tea tastes. It is an important thing to remember when trying a tea – what water are you using, and what does it do to your tea?

Most of us rely on some kind of tap water supply for regular drinking. Where your municipality gets its water changes how your tea tastes. When I lived in Pacific Northwest I remember the water tasting very fresh and is often very cold even in the summer – it’s snowmelt so that’s how the water comes out. In places like Hong Kong we get most of our water from a river source in nearby Guangdong, and it’s heavily treated. It’s not that great, but I suppose it could be worse.

Then you have bottled waters, which as bad as it is for the environment, is usually where you can get some pretty good water. A few months ago my cousin-in-law who’s an expert on Japanese liquors brought back a couple bottles of water for me from the Suntory natural water range. There are three sources for this line – Mount Aso, from Kyushu, Mount Oku-daisen, and from the Southern Alps of Japan. I got two bottles – the Mount Aso and Mount Oku-daisen ones. It’s always refreshing to taste different waters and notice how different they can be. Both are fragrant waters – yes, water can be fragrant, not so much in that they smell like anything, but when you drink it there’s an aftertaste that rises up your nose. The Mount Aso is, I feel, a better water – more interesting, more complex, and a bit more aroma. The Mount Oku-daisen is lighter. Turns out the Mount Aso water has more dissolved minerals, which might explain why. This is not to say the Oku-daisen water was bad – far from it. But the Mount Aso water is better.

There are practical limitations to using bottled water. I try to avoid doing it for two reasons – cost, and the obvious wastefulness of using bottled waters. However, these days at work what I do is buying large bottles of either Volvic (another reliable supply) or this Scottish water from the local supermarket and adding it to my office supply. The reason is because our office uses a reverse-osmosis filtered water, which yields a sharp and flat water. If you use RO water for brewing, it is quite easy to get a bad brew – the tea will not be very flavourful and it often appears very rough on your tongue. Adding some of this mineral water in helps round out my tea and makes it much more palatable. Blending it also keeps the dissolved solids in my water low enough so that boiling it doesn’t produce sediments; if your water’s mineral content is too high it will leave a crust of minerals, which is a bit of a problem for an electric kettle. I’m not about to bring my tetsubin setup here for obvious reasons.

Sometimes I see people say things like “I use RO/distilled water because it’s pure”, which is pure nonsense. Yes, it’s pure in the sense that there’s nothing else in it. However, naturally occurring water will never be “pure” water. Tea aficionados of the past have always advocated spring water of various kinds for the best brewing experience – precisely because they contain interesting minerals that make the tea taste better. The famous Hupao spring in Hangzhou, for example, has a pretty high mineral content. Using distilled or RO processed water to brew tea is just a waste of good tea leaves. If you don’t believe it, try it side by side with a good water like Volvic. The difference should be night and day. In fact, even if you do believe it, try it anyway. The differences with using different water is very enlightening and helps any tea drinker understand which part of the tea is coming from the tea leaves, and which part of it is from the water. As I’ve said many times before, the most cost effective way of improving your cup is not buying better leaves, but getting better water.


The taste of water — 15 Comments

  1. Water will make or break your tea, no doubt.
    I used to live in a little town in the eastern alps, surrounded by 5 mountains with dozens of easily accessible water sources all over the place. Those waters all tasted different and I wouldn’t want to miss the countless sessions involving pairing individual waters with individual teas (yerbas, beans, …). As useful as Volvic may be as an alternative to some lesser tap water, or even as some sort of reference, primarily because of its almost worldwide accessibility any decent tea really starts to shine if brewed with some individually matched, fresh spring water – one of the very few luxuries I care about.

    • PS: I’ve posted this on TC before but so what – I always sip some lukewarm water on the side and between individual steeps here and there and really don’t get why most tea folks I know don’t do it as well. Sipping some of the same water your tea or whatever has been brewed with not only can give you a valuable reference point (taste, texture, …), it also helps to mitigate the often underestimated impact of those hot, concentrated beverages on the cells of the upper digestive tract.

    • Well, count yourself lucky you have a plethora of choices. Most of us would be happy with just one decent source of water. So, the next best thing, unfortunately, is trying different bottled waters and find out which one is the best. If you feel queasy about global warming though, it’s not a great option.

      And I agree on sipping the water, especially if it’s not your usual water – you get a better sense of what you’re dealing with by drinking it.

  2. Marshal, I’m brewing with a Tibetan spring water sold at Taste here in HK and I like the results! It’s quite a light water. Using it to brew some very good old tree maocha from Myanmar. Would love to hear your opinion on it!

  3. I agree with you about RO water, but I know some serious Dan Cong lovers swear that it is the best water to use with high end Phoenix teas. I personally always use my tap water (which is quite good) boiled in a tetsubin. Imen Shan insists that we should use RO water with her highest end teas.

    • Well, it’s hard to say for sure what’s going through Imen’s mind. But there are a few possibilities:
      1) Using RO water will decrease bitterness. The downside to this is you’re also throwing out all kinds of interesting things with it for this one effect. Since dancong tend to be easily bitter, RO water will make it easier to brew. Also, by throwing out all the other things (body, mouthfeel, aftertaste) it might in some way accentuate the high notes because that’s all that’s left. However, you can achieve similar results with better tea if you use a mineral water with lower TDS – Iceland Spring (available at Whole Foods usually) is a good one to try for these. Pair with a silver kettle for maximum effect.
      2) Visually using RO water will make the brew look lighter in colour, regardless of the tea type. A water heavy in minerals will make the tea darker. If she likes it that way for some reason, that’s a reason.
      3) There are some people who think of RO water (or distilled water) as “pure” water, and somehow “pure” means better in their mind, because, well, pure must be better than impure. To draw an analogy though, a chicken soup cooked with just a chicken and RO water is going to taste like crap, no matter how good your chicken is. That’s because all the other things you usually add to the chicken soup (salt, celery, carrots, etc) make the flavour more complex and interesting. Yes, you are getting pure chicken flavour with just chicken and water, but notice how nobody really does that when it comes to soup – because it’s not good.

      It’s quite easy to do some A/B testing to see if some water is better than others for this purpose. Do it blind so you don’t get biased.

    • Some die-hard oldtimers over here collect rain water for their daily assam fixes. The results taste like crap to me but I keep my mouth shut – whatever makes them happy …

  4. “The famous Hupao spring in Hangzhou, for example, has a pretty high mineral content.”
    That (in addition to the marketability and legend of the water) might explain why we saw scores of people lined up to fill their plastic jugs when we visited Hupao this spring. I didn’t have a chance to try any for myself, and I might have hesitated if I had been offered any (although my impression of the water pollution in China may be exaggerated).

    I live in Norway. The tap water here is generally very good, so I haven’t bothered with buying bottled water for tea. Neither did I do that when I lived in Hong Kong; I did notice that the tap water in my Ma On Shan flat was far from as good as the one I was used to back in Oslo, but still found it decent enough for the decent enough tea leaves I was steeping. That, and the whole environmental impact thing…

  5. it’s not just the seasoning either, there is strong binding of polyphenols to different minerals going on, not to mention other reactions. (another reason why different waters, even with similar TDS, can give out very different brews.) not to mention that minerals are a major part of what the leaves themselves leach out anyway. i have a hard time seeing how RO water could work well.

    • Yup, very much the case here with tea. I notice a very obvious difference between the amount of stuff that a mineral water can pull out of tea versus a water with nothing else in it. It’s night and day and at the end of the day, the extraction process is what you want happening with your tea. On the other hand though, too much of it can be a bad thing, so finding the right balance for the tea in question is always the key. Instead of talking about tea/food pairing, a more important thing might be to talk about tea/water pairing.

  6. I am quite particular about my water when it comes to tea. At home, I typically used filtered water from the tap. The water by itself isn’t the best, but filtering makes it better and after boiling it, doesn’t hurt the flavor of the tea. I wish I could say the same for my food. I don’t think I’ve tried bottled water yet when brewing tea (largely in part because I refuse to buy it unless its absolutely necessary). And if anyone every asks me, I highly discourage the use of distilled water, since its already been boiled.

    While I traveled through Japan last year, I do believe I a few bottles of Suntory water products. It was very good. I also had some of the best bottled matcha ever (nothing like what I’ve found in the US).

    Anyway, great article. Thank you for hitting on the subject.

Leave a Reply