Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Water's influence on tea

My 2 recent trips to Lugu (Central Taiwan) and Greece were excellent reminders for me of the huge importance of water for tea. A cup of tea is 99% made of water, so this should come as no surprise. But once we have settled to one water 'source' at home, we tend to forget about it. As we strive for excellent tea leaves, nice teaware, improving gongfucha skills, I recommend also to pay more attention to water.

Early June, when tasting different Dong Ding Oolongs from master Chang, I was struck how smooth, flowery and easy to swallow they were. Even his heaviest roasted Oolong tasted light and fresh. And we were brewing his teas with a white ceramic tasting set for several minutes to push them to their limit! This method usually brings out the most bitterness. So, after tasting similar characteristics from several of his teas, I asked for a small cup of the boiling water we were using. The water felt very pure, slipped quickly down my throat and left a little sweet aftertaste. "This is excellent water!", I said. "Where does it come from?"

"It comes from a source in the Shan Lin Shi mountain area". This picture on the left shows a reservoir for such spring water. You can see plastic tubes bringing the water there.
Lu Yu had already realized that the best water for a tea comes from the region where the tea originates. And that it's better to get water from a lively mountain river, rather from a stagnant pond (and not from a waterfall either). If I mention Lu Yu, it is to emphasize how this important question of water has been debated and tested for a long time in China, not as a dogma. What I find fascinating is that his findings still matter so much to our modern tea quests.

3 weeks later, I was in Greece 'enjoying' the country's hottest month of June ever with temperatures over 40 degrees Celcius. The first times I brewed the same Oolongs I had drunk in Lugu, I was unable to enjoy them. The 1991 old roasted Dong Ding only smelt like charcoal and the green, lightly oxidized Spring 2007 Shan Lin Shi luanze Oolong felt grassy, short and lacking its roundness. (I was using a ceramic gaiwan).
The problem came from the water and how it was boiled: even though I had been carefull to purchase a local mineral water (Samaria) with little mineral residue (less than 200 mg/l), I had to use the apartment's plastic kettle. The steel heating part was covered with limestone deposit from the tap water (which guests usually use to boil water).

The same teas drunk in Lugu or in Greece tasted like day and night. No wonder, I thought, that not more Europeans are embracing fine Chinese teas. If the result they get are like that, I would also refuse to pay the premium prices of Formosa Oolongs and continue drinking cheap red teas (with milk and sugar!).

Here are two things I did to improve my water:
- Cleaning the limestone residue from the plastic kettle,
- Stopping the boil before I had buffalo eyes in the kettle!

The teas were improved, but I still felt that the water from dry Crete has very different characteristics from water from subtropical Taiwan. I wish I hadn't forgotten my bamboo charcoal. Crete's water would have been a good candidate for experimenting it.

What we use and how we use it to boil water has a big impact on the taste and flavor of tea. So let me give further advice, hints for experimentation on this matter:
- Avoid plastic and favor kettles that let the water 'breath': unglazed ceramic kettles will work well (depending on the quality of the ceramic) for most teas.

- Unglazed iron kettles (tetsubins) also let the water breath, but also add some iron to the water, which gives it a sweet taste. This works well with most (heavier) teas. It's not recommended for very light Chinese green teas. The iron taste may overpower/disturb the taste of the green tea.

- Water must come to a boil to become alive or 'open' as the Chinese say. But overboiling water will make it 'old', deplete of oxygen. To achieve a good hot water, I recommend to heat at a slow/medium speed. There are 3 reasons for this: 1.You have more control over when to stop the boil, 2. The heat in the kettle is evenly distributed (otherwise you may get water that makes a steaming sound as it comes out from the overheated sprout), 3. the best gongfu chas are made with a peaceful mindset, not one stressed by water boiling at maximum speed.

- To keep your boiling water 'fresh', you can add cold water to the boiled water and bring it to a boil again. This helps to have a more or less constant level of freshness for your boiled water.

Enjoy the beautiful leaves now!


Steph said...

Wow - that last photo with the close up of the small plant and the expansive sky in the background is breathtaking!!!

Julian said...


I have just found you blog and hey, this is a great piece of article!

Yuliya said...

Very informative! Thank you! I've been using a plastic kettle, and sensed that that might not be the best choice. I appreciate your confirmation!