Have you ever tried an incredible tea at a shop, paid out a significant chunk of your wallet, only to take the tea home and have it be completely uninteresting or flat out bad? As a person who stood behind the counter at a tea shop, I can share the experiences of these ill-fated customers. Some come in dejected and say that making tea will always be beyond them, because no matter what they do, the tea is ruined. Some come in upset, suggesting that they were conned out of money and sold low quality tea. I began by asking how they made the tea. This kind of question usually leads to putting people on the defensive, insinuating that they did something wrong. Later I started brewing up whatever they had a problem with and having them watch, and try the finished product. The step-by-step brewing process reminded me of the eccentric tea sage Lu Yu who encouraged people to copy the quick reference guide on tea brewing that he wrote onto bamboo strips to hang in their kitchen. Yet Lu Yu did not become a living legend for his kitchen guides. He was known for his pursuit of something that might help our conundrum: water.
Lu Yu’s goal was to find the best water in the world. He set out on this journey because he knew the techniques of tea brewing that he perfected for China would never yield quality tea without using quality water. He supposedly wrote a whole lost treatise on the subject, outlining the best springs across China. He condemned any source of water like a well or lake that did not circulate. One day the emperor invited Lu Yu for tea, wanting to try the finest possible brew. A servant was instructed to fetch water from a spring that came up in the middle of a small river. The servant returned with water and Lu Yu brewed tea for the emperor. They took the first sip and Lu Yu frowned in frustration. “You have failed to bring me the water I need to make tea. Did you bring me here to mock me?” The emperor was furious. Not only was he unable to notice any defect in the tea, but also he was being criticized in his own home.
“Servant boy, did you bring water from the spring that I instructed you to?” The servant nodded and bowed. The emperor called for guards to take Lu Yu away in chains. Lu Yu took a second sip of tea to calm his nerves.
“Wait a moment, The second sip of tea is correct. This sip was made with from the spring that I suggested. The first sip was made with mere river water.” The servant was astonished and kneeled before Lu Yu.
“Forgive me. I drew water from the spring that comes up in the middle of the river, but when I got out of my boat, half the bucket spilled, and I refilled it with water from the riverbank.” The emperor was astonished by Lu Yu’s abilities and offered him the position of tea minister at court. Lu Yu (politely) refused the offer, with the intention of continuing his journey to find great water and great tea.
The next time a customer came in with a brewing problem I asked about their water. They said that they don’t drink the water by itself because it tastes bad, but just use it to make tea and coffee. Problem solved. I never want to sound like an arrogant tea snob, telling people what they must and must not do, so I use a simple illustration explain the importance of water in tea making. When you brew tea, you begin with leaves and water. When the tea is brewed the leaves are removed and you drink just the water. Tea is 99.9% water. The water that you use will carry the flavor of the tea, but it will also carry its own flavor. No tea can turn bad water into good water. Even I forget this sometimes, thinking of the brewing process as alchemical. Ingredients go in, but what come out is entirely its own thing.
Without going deep in chemistry, water is essentially a solvent. When you add boiling water to tea leaves, the water is able to extract compounds from the leaf. If the leaves were allowed to sit in water long enough, they would break down completely. Yet if water’s only purpose in brewing was to dissolve solids, it would not matter what kind of water you used. Pure distilled water makes some of the worst tea possible. It is flat and flavorless. On the other side, hard water makes murky, chalky tea. What we are looking for is a water that is clean enough to extract the flavors out of the leaf without adding other tastes, but not so clean that the flavors of the tea get lost and absorbed.
Our ideal is Lu Yu’s ideal: spring water. A good spring water is clean and sweet, but still has a texture (not flavor) given by the minerals naturally dissolved and suspended in the water. Tea people describe these minerals as a foundation that the tea can build off of. They give the water a certain confidence, a flavor that says “I am water!” as opposed to distilled water which says (in a wishy-washy way) “I am H2O.” This way, the tea itself does not have to work as hard to taste good. It isn’t making up for a lack of flavor, or too much bad flavor. The good taste that it has to offer can ride smoothly on the pleasant flavor the water already has.
Not convinced? I wouldn’t be either. There are so many trends and fads out there that it is best not to believe what you hear. Instead, do an experiment at home. Brew two cups of tea, preferably with an unflavored tea. (artificial flavorings are powerful enough to mask water quality) One cup should be made with spring water, the other with tap water. I will do this for people at tastings, and have a 100% success rate at people noticing the difference in a blind test.
Let’s say that you did the test and you are convinced, but not happy with paying for bottled water, or unhappy about the plastic waste. I certainly don’t like the idea of buying bottled spring water to support my 3+ gallons a day tea drinking habit. I am lucky to live in a neighborhood with passable tap water, so I got a nice charcoal filter that screws into the faucet. A filter cartridge lasts several months and makes hundreds of gallons of water before needing replacement. This works very well.
Even if you use spring water, you have to try a few brands to see what works. Don’t get one that says “drinking water.” Find one from an actual spring, and make sure that there are no other ingredients. Sounds weird, but check out Dasani next time you see it. Many companies add minerals back in for taste. I use Chippewa Springs for most teas, because it is sweet and inoffensive. Once I accidentally bought water from another spring, Glenwood and used it at a tasting. It was so mineralized that it left sediment in everyones cup. It took away from most of the teas flavor, but actually made the best cup of one particular pu’er that I had ever had. If you want to carry this water issue to the extreme, you can keep a water collection and pair each tea with appropriate spring water, keeping a journal of water tasting notes. Lu Yu would be proud. However, in the interest of being able to make tea an unobtrusive part of our lives, filtered water is a great compromise. Try it at home and you might just find your teas tasting even better than they did at the shop where you bought them.