How to pour water

Another topic that came up during my conversations with Sherab is pouring water into the pot. Think it doesn’t matter?

Well… the story he told me is like this

A certain famous tea master, who shall remain nameless, was brewing tea for a few people somewhere in China. Sherab has a friend who went. Two teas were made. The first was a wet stored cooked puerh, and it tasted like crap. The tea supposedly gave off the “locking the throat” feeling, where one feels as though the throat is closing up and is often attributed by mainland Chinese as a sign of wet storage — a bad side effect, so to speak. The second tea, which, while not specified (to me) I assume is also of a similar genre, had no such effect. Second tea is better, no?

Well… not quite. Apparently, when the master made the first tea, he poured water from up high and in a rather violent fashion, so the water hit the pot hard. The second tea he didn’t do that. Afterwards, as Sherab’s friend knows said master, he went and asked. Master said, “when you do that (high and fast pouring) with wet stored cooked puerh, you will always produce the “locked throat” effect”. Pray, tell, why would a venerable tea master do such a thing so that a tea will come out tasting worse? Well, I’m sure you all, my intelligent readers, must know the answer, and it involves profit, if you need a hint.

The fact that most tea masters out there have a profit motive is not something you need me to tell you. However, the significant part of this story is the pouring – how do you pour water into the pot affects the way the tea tastes. I remember, very early on in my own tea career, I was told that when making oolongs, one should pour from high up, in a small stream, gently, and slowly. Puerh, on the other hand, should be treated with a stronger stream, but NOT high up — pour low. When pouring from pot/fairness cup into the cups, ALWAYS pour low — don’t splash around like some bad youtube videos do.

Over time, I must say I’ve gotten sloppy with my water pouring technique. It’s easy to get lazy, but I decided to try that out again today. I pulled out my aged baozhong, a tea I know pretty well, and one of my pots, and made sure that whenever I made that tea, I poured in a small stream from up high. The result? My tea seems to be a little less sour, and a little smoother. I’m going to try tomorrow, with the exact same wares, but with a different water pouring style. Let’s see what happens, and of course, I’ll report back.

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.

Revived from the dead

Over time, I’ve bought a bunch of stuff that I thought were duds for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s stuff that are, basically, no good at all. Other times, it’s tea that should’ve been good that had somehow gone bad. Or, perhaps, I made them bad (say, longjing I bought three years ago… anybody want some?). Today’s tea was supposed to be one of them.

I had a few boxes of stuff that recently arrived via the slow boat from Taiwan. Among them, of course, are a bunch of teas. Some are good, some are ok, some are things that I didn’t want to throw away, but not really good at all. This is a qizhong (literally unusual varietal) of Wuyi mountains, bought from the candy store. It was one of my first purchases there. Their tieguanyin became one of my staple teas in Taiwan. This one, however, wasn’t so good — too sour.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked this up today to try. I figured maybe, just maybe, it won’t be that bad.

It looks pretty good dry, which was why I bought it in the first place

Smells old, although, now that my nose is a bit more trained, it also smells a bit sour. But I wasn’t quite good at telling that apart from the “old” smell before.

Into my old oolong (1 person) pot it goes

The second cup

The …. 12th? cup

The residue

Since I lasted 10+ cups, you probably figured out that the tea wasn’t that bad. It was, in fact, far better than I expected. There was some sourness at first, but by the third cup it was gone. The Wuyi “rock” taste was very strong, with a potent minty sensation down the throat. Aged, of course, and I couldn’t detect any sort of immediate roasting flavour. Nicely aged and mellowed… a winner. Even better without the initial sourness, but I can’t ask that much.

What changed?

Well, everything, really. First, the water. It’s a different water (not my Taiwan apartment slightly problematic water). Boiled in a different vessel (my cheap tetsubin instead of the glass kettle). Brewed in a different thing (a supposed zhuni pot instead of a gaiwan). Drunk in a different cup (my newest purchase instead of another cup). And of course, just halfway across the planet.

Which one was the one responsible for making this tea better? I don’t know, but I suspect water, water prep, and tea brewing vessel all did their share. Or, maybe, after all this time brewing old oolongs, I myself am also a little different, and a little better at this. Can’t complain.

Reading old texts II

I was flipping through the collection of old tea texts again, and something caught my eye. This is stuff that I saw a few times today with some Ming dynasty (1368-1644) texts. It has to do with water.

Remember those lessons you’ve learned, on or offline, that you should use water that is at “shrimp eye” or “crab eye” meaning that the water hasn’t reached a full rolling boil yet because once you do, the water is “old” and isn’t good for tea anymore?

Well, it seems like people who wrote about tea in the Ming dynasty didn’t agree. In fact, they say that the only water that should be used for tea is stuff that reached a full boil. You shouldn’t brew tea using water that is anything less than a full boil, they say, because in those cases the water would still retain a “water qi” that interferes with the tea. If you boil it out with a rolling boil, then the water becomes fully cooked, and is suitable for making tea.

So who’s right? After all, Lu Yu, of all people, said water should not reach a full boil!

Well, one of the authors explained that there’s a reason for this discrepency. It has to do with, you guessed it, the way tea was brewed. Whereas in the Tang and the Song, tea was ground down and powdered, etc, and sometimes with added incense or other things to enhance the flavour of the tea, water that has reached a full boil will mess with the powdered tea’s texture and taste. That’s why it’s no good. Whereas with the switch to full-leaf tea in the early Ming dynasty, the whole bit about water not reaching a full boil no longer applies. If you leave it underboiled, what you end up is a mixture of water and tea that isn’t quite harmonious. Full boil, with a fire that is “open” (in this case meaning a live fire with charcoal, not a bunch of flameless charcoal that is just very hot) is the way to go. Anything less is not good.

Interesting food for thought. It is important to keep in mind that most of these later tea texts are generally ignored by current day “tea masters” who tend to go back to the few famous ones, such as Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the Daguan Chalun that I talked about last time, and a few others that tend to be more often quoted. However, the fact that there was this change in these rather short and relatively unknown treatises on tea means that there are other theories out there, and given that three or four different texts I read today all say the same thing about water needing a full boil means that this idea probably had wide currency among Ming tea drinkers — even if they were copying each other, the only reason they’ll commit it to paper is if they thought it was right.

Another thing to keep in mind — the teas they were drinking were green teas, maybe slightly roasted, but largely speaking, what we now call green teas. Full boil water anyway. Yup.

Water again

So I’ve been using the tetsubin to make water that I then use to brew tea. How has it turned out?

Pretty well, actually.

The tetsubin does make the water seem a little softer, instead of having that sharp edge that a stainless steel water kettle will provide. It also makes the water a little heavier. I’ve found that for my aged oolongs, which are my tea of choice these days, it means the tea comes out a little more flavourful. The iron ions or whatever are drawing stuff out of the tea. Today I had my aged tieguanyin from my candy store, and it came out particularly strongly in a way that wasn’t really true when I had this tea a week or two ago.

That said, it might interfere with certain types of tea, especially green teas, if the water is used for that. It will make the colour of the tea darker, and the flavour will be also darker accordingly. That might not be ideal in the case of, say, a good longjing where all you want is that light and crisp bean taste. You won’t get that with this kind of water.

One practical problem has been the size of this little thing — it’s a bit on the small side. Three infusions, and I need a new pot of water. That is a slight problem, and since boiling water on the alcohol burner takes forever, I need to go to the stove, heat the water up, and let the alcohol burner do the last bit of boiling. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the most sensible one. Curiously, the lid is actually very air tight. It’s fine when it’s on the alcohol burner, but when heated on the stove, it seems like the thing was never designed for such a high level of heat and water can start spewing out because of the lack of a vent on the lid (mostly because it’s such a flat thing so the spout is only slightly higher than the body). Pretty interesting.

Tasting waters

Still kinda busy….

I conducted a taste test just now with my cleaned tetsubin and my regular stainless steel electric kettle… the electric kettle water is, relatively speaking, a little sharper, whereas the tetsubin water is a little softer.

I find tasting waters to be almost as much fun as tasting different teas. Lining up four or five cups of water, unmarked if possible, and drink them one by one — swirling around the mouth a bit, feel the body, the taste, etc, and one really gets an appreciation of the way different water tastes. Then, use the same waters to brew the same tea — preferably a tea that you know very well already. The differences are going to be quite obvious and remarkable.

Now I need to try my tetsubin on the teas I’ve been making the teas I’ve been making…. let’s see if I can tell any difference. Either way though, I am happy, finally, that I can wean myself off the electric kettle…. it’s convenient, but having a fire under my kettle making tea is just somehow more convenient. It makes me happy.

Heavy teas, light teas, and the water they drink

Food for thought while driving 6 hours to go to Washington DC for a conference and sipping bad teabag teas — there are, I think, two types of teas out there, heavy and light. Heavy teas are things like cooked or aged puerh, roasted oolongs (and some aged oolongs), black tea, and that sort of thing. Light teas are green, white, light fermentation oolongs, etc.

That’s probably pretty obvious. I think though that generally speaking, in terms of tea preparation, there are one set of requirements that will work for heavy teas, and one set that will work for light teas. This is of course not accurate, because they each vary individually and each batch of tea will perform differently. However, I think that over time, I’ve noticed things are different waters and different teas that seem to play out consistently roughly within the heavy/light classification. So, for example, a water heavy in mineral content does not work very well with the light teas — the water is often too strong in taste or texture and destroys the beauty in the light teas. A really light water with a heavy tea, on the other hand, can make an otherwise thick and luscious tea seem thin, even though the tea will gain a bit of crispness and perhaps freshness not common in those types. This is not a science, and it is certainly not precise, but it is a beginning of a thought.

Has anybody else noticed this, or is this just induced by drinking Nestle “100% real leaf tea” teabags?

Water’s too good for the tea

Water can sometimes be too good for a tea.  Today was such a case — went to the Best Tea House to see Tiffany and drop off stuff, and had one of the baozhongs I brought there… wow, the tea tasted awful.  Flat, thin, not aromatic, slightly rough — what happened?

It’s that super water filter they use!

I think the water’s so free of minerals, it tastes bad.  I’ve found this to be the case with a few other teas I’ve brought over too — flat, boring, thin.  You compensate by putting in more leaves, but I always forget that when I go there and make tea.  So…. the tea ends up tasting like crap.

So yes… sometimes water can be too good for a tea.  I’m not even sure if there’s ever such a need for such a good water filter in a place where the water system is quite well developed.  Beijing, maybe… but Hong Kong’s water isn’t that bad.  Its only fault is that it smells a bit like chlorine sometimes….

Water issues again

Before I get on to the topic of water… some unfinished business from yesterday.

This is what yesterday’s tea looked like when I brewed it this morning

This is what it looked like late afternoon

The top cup is yesterday’s tea. The bottom is today’s Wuyi…

And this is how the leaves look when I finally cleaned the teapot

So, yes, suspicions of cooked tea still remains, but the longeivity of the tea itself, and the fact that he has really no good reason to lie to me, makes me think that he’s not lying. It doesn’t matter much, because the tea tastes a bit cooked. I can probably boil it with water and get a few more cups of rather tasty tea out of it, actually.

Anyway, water. I’ve been fiddling with my water here, since I am starting with a new supply and not the steady Nestle water I used in Beijing. I have noticed over time that filtered tap water here is slightly acidic… just a hint of acidity. I don’t know why that is the case, but it is. The building is new. Will new pipes lead to a slightly acidic water?

The effect on tea, however, hasn’t been really obvious until today when I brewed the Wuyi that I thought was slightly sour. I thought I should drink it up, so I made the tea again. Only today, because of a water supply problem (something broke in the building so they shut down water for a few hours) I bought a big bottle of water from the convenience store across the street. The water is light in minerals and quite sweet in its taste. Not a bad water. I used about half tap water (I still had some left in my filter) and half of this bottled water. The effect is dramatic… the Wuyi tastes better than last time, and the sourness? Gone. Absolutely gone. There was perhaps a tinge of it somewhere in the first infusion, but it is so faint that it could very well be placebo.

This of course reinforces the well known fact that water is very important, but since the water itself doesn’t taste sour when drunk, I was surprised that the tap water did that much damage to the taste of the tea and the manifestation of sourness. I always knew that water will do a lot of things to the body of the tea and the way it acts in the mouth, but I didn’t think something like whether or not an oolong will turn sour is so affected as well by what must be a small shift in the ph of the water.

Well, lesson learned. One of these days, I should re-do my water experiment from way back…. when I first started the blog, I drank the same tea for four or five days in a row, each day using a different kind of water. I remember the differences were big, but these days, I think I can probably better discern and describe the differences.

Water preparation

One of the perculiarities of Taiwan that I’ve noticed is that it runs a dual voltage. While most household sockets deliver 110v, some deliver 220v. I’ve noticed that it’s not just my apartment either — the subway station has clearly marked “110v” and “220v” sockets. Why any country would run two systems is beyond me…

But being mostly 110v, it means that I can’t use my water boiler from China. What I used to do was to heat up the water in the electric boiler, and then transfer it to my glass kettle with the alcohol burner. Since I couldn’t find the right fuel at first, I resorted to using the stove, which is basically a heating plate of sorts, with my glass kettle. It worked, but there was one problem — water was either not boiling, or boiling too quickly and reached a rolling boil in no time. I also couldn’t keep it on a constant heat easily, since it behaved strangely.

Thankfully, I finally located a place that sells the right kind of fuel. As an added bonus — it no longer smells at all, unlike the stuff they sold in Beijing. I wonder if there were some nasty impurities in the Beijing stuff.

What I do now is to use the stove to heat the water up sufficient so it’s close to boiling, and then let the boiling happen with the alcohol burner. I think this actually achieves a better boil — the water temp is kept high throughout a session easily, and I can also control the water temperature better by adding splashes of cold water throughout the session. With using the stove it was more like an all or nothing issue — since I don’t brew tea right next to the stove. Now I’m a happy man with the right water making equipment 🙂

I think I would recommend something similar (not necessarily glass, although glass is useful for letting you look at the water). I think a small flame is always preferable over a heating plate type thing, not necessarily because of contact with metal or any such thing, but rather because it lets the tea maker have a much better sense of the temperature of the water being used and to maintain a more or less constant temperature throughout a session.