It is raining today as I write this post. Copious amounts of water saturate everything. The water around me would not be the water I would use to steep my tea. I also have been to the ocean. Water was spraying up onto the side of the building that I was staying in. While there was an abundance of water sea side, I would not use the ocean water to make tea either. What is the best type of water to make tea?
Different Types of Water
All water is not the same. There is standing water, ocean water, rainfall, ice, spring water, distilled water, and tap water just to name a few types of water. Water is the only substance naturally occurring on earth that can take on three varied forms. Water can be found in a solid form (for example ice), a gas (steam), and a liquid (oceans, rain drops). Ice, unexpectedly, is less dense than water and is the reason ice floats.
Tea is made up of approximately 98% water. Tea can be defined as soluble elements (solute) dissolved in water, which is the dissolving agent (solvent). Water is a universal solvent because water can dissolve a plethora of substances.
There are reasons not to use ocean water, rain water, stagnant or sitting water for tea. The minerals and chemicals in these types of water, can negatively alter the taste of the water. Just like there are three enemies to the tea leaf (light, heat, moisture), there are three universal offenders of water. They are water hardness, mineral/chemical components, and alkalinity or ph level.
Hard water usually contains high levels of magnesium and calcium. The harder the water, the more scale formation can be found in tea kettles, shower heads, and sink faucets. Hard water can also make the tea turn cloudy due to the excessive magnesium and calcium in the water. The flavor and mineral extraction from the tea leaves will take longer to accomplish if the tea is steeped in hard water. A film or scum can form on the top of tea that is left to sit for a while because of the excessive amounts of calcium. Specifically, if the hard water contains calcium carbonate, then when it reacts to the oxygen in boiling water, it changes to calcium bicarbonate and this is what creates the film. A simple way to alleviate the film or scum formed on top of the tea is to add a bit of acid (lemon juice) and the film will disappear.
Minerals and chemicals found or added to water can adversely affect the taste of the water. For example, chlorine added to water to disinfect the water can leave a bleach taste and decrease the oxidants found in the tea. Boiling water can decrease, if not nearly eliminate the chlorine in water and stop the offending bleach taste and aroma. Too much sodium in water can create a flat, dull and salty cup of tea.
The most extensive method to clean water is through the process of Reverse Osmosis. This process pushes water through a membrane which traps unwanted chemicals, minerals, and substances out of the water molecule. The action of Reverse Osmosis can filter water to approximately 99% pure water.
Ph levels and alkaline levels are the last type of water culprit to a good cup of tea. The ph scale of water is evaluated on a scale ranging from 0-14. Water below a ph 7 on the scale is an acid, and water above a ph 7 is a base or alkaline. Tea that has been stepped in acidic water will have no aroma, and taste sour. Tea that has been steeped in alkaline water above a ph 7 becomes more bitter tasting. The ideal ph level in water for steeping tea is ph 7, or neutral. Using distilled water to steep tea may not include crucial minerals that enhance tea’s taste, leaving tea to taste flat (slight in flavor).
Best Water For Tea
The best water for tea, according to Lisa Boalt Richardson, in her book Modern Tea, contains 150 ppm (parts per million) mineral content, 85 ppm (5 grains) hardness, and 40 ppm alkalinity (7 ph or neutral). She states that there should be “no color, no iron, no silica, and have a clean taste.” The Chinese Tang Dynasty tea scholar Lu Yu (733-804), called the Father of Tea, believed that optimal water was from the same region as the tea. He believed the tea leaves would reveal their true nature when they came in contact with the same water that gave life to the tea tree. The first tea masters in China would attempt to guess the source of water used to steep their tea. In James Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary, he stated a Japanese tea connoisseur described the quality of water deriving from “snow that has melted from plum blossoms and then been stored for three years.”
Setting all technicalities and creativly descriptive definitions aside, bottled spring water and filtered water is more commmonly used and readily accessible water for steeping tea. Spring water and filtered water has more beneficial mineral content for steeping tea than distilled, hard or very acidic water. When using bottled spring water to steep tea it should not contain salt. Otherwise, it can create a flat tasting and salty cup of tea.
A Tea Experiment
An interesting at home experiment with tea and water is simple to do and can help demystify what type of water to use for tea. In their book The Story Of Tea, Mary Lou Hess and Robert J. Hess suggest to bring spring water, distilled water, and tap water to a full boil. Let the water cool, then smell and taste the water. Make tea using all three types of water. Taste the difference in the teas.
In Hot Water
The hot water (and cold water) you use to infuse your tea ought to have a fresh, clean, taste. The absence of unwanted mineral and chemical substances is crucial for a flavorful and subtly nuanced cup of tea.
Wishes for a flavorful cup of tea,
Americi, Hugo and Jasmin Desharnais, Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. Firefly Books Ltd., 2011.
Hess, Mary Lou and Robert J. Hess. The Story Of Tea: A Cultural History And Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press, 2007.
Komancheki, Wendy. Fresh Cup Magazine. September, 2010.
Pettigrew, Jane. Tea Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide. Running Press, 2004.
Pettigrew, Jane and Bruce Richardson. The New Tea Companion: A Guide To Teas Through The World. Benjamin Press and National Trust, 2005.
Richardson, Lisa Boalt. Modern Tea. Chronicle Books, 2014.
Pratt, James Norwood. Tea Dictionary. Tea Society Press, 2010.
About the Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Levl IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!