Recently my colleague Grega from Njamisushi drove me to Ruše, a small town near Slovenia’s Pohorje mountain range. The road is narrow but manageable. We parked right by the spring, which was great, since we had a trunk full of glass flasks for hundreds of liters of spring water. And by spring water I mean the real fresh stuff that flows naturally from an underground source.
I took this picture during summer time.
Choosing the right water
Why is it important? Because over 99% of the content of your cup of tea is dihydrogen monoxide (H2O, aka water). That’s why choosing good water is actually more important than buying top-grade tealeaves, using wonderful ware, or honing tea gongfu skills to perfection.
Here in Slovenia tap water is not so bad, especially where i live, because it isn’t chlorinated at all. However, local water is very hard. Of course I hate the fact that scale builds up so fast on tea accessories, but I also realize that most cities around the world would be very happy to have our kind of water running through their pipework. In fact, in most big cities the water is simply not suitable for daily intake, let alone making good tea.
Bottled water and Chinese tradition
More and more tea traders recommend using bottled water for tea. I don’t think that this is a good idea. Why? Because bottled water is not fresh. Storage conditions vary drastically: water may be exposed to sunlight or cold, or it may be trapped in tanks or bottles for long periods of time. Either way, a traditionalist would probably argue that water that is not allowed to ‘breathe’ lacks ‘qi’ – a big factor in traditional tea culture.
Lu Yu, the author of the first comprehensive book on tea, says that ‘the best water comes from mountain springs, while the worst is found in wells’. This rationale is still relevant. Due to prolonged contact with the rocky inlay of wells, water becomes acidic and sometimes even tastes salty. Well water is also stagnant, and where there’s no movement, there’s no life or energy. I guess it’s fine to use well water if nothing else is available, but if I have better options, I’ll do what I can to make my tea taste great and feel vibrant.
Zhang Xin You, a scholar of ancient tea culture, believes that it is best to use water from a spring near the place where the tea is grown.
Another teaist, Zhang Yuan takes a poetically philosophical stance, suggesting that ‘the essence of tea is water, while water is a substance of tea’. Good tea and spring water are in a synergistic relationship: vibrancy of good tea can only be uncovered through the living substance of natural water.
Water that is too pure is poor water
Water quality if one of today’s most discussed environmental concerns. Even sophisticated home filtering systems have been found problematic, since they tend to acidify water. For instance, my friend Grega tells me that his Brita filter produces water with a pH value of 5.5. The other issue with filters is that they remove mineral substances and other “good” elements that are crucial for perfect brewing.
Water is a natural solvent, which means that the spring water dissolves small values of polar and ionic substances contained in the underground medium through which it flows. That is good. In fact, that’s what makes water natural. No drinking water should be 100% pure.
I always free my kettle of scale before boiling a new batch of spring water. By scale I mean the sediment and lime that form both inside and outside the kettle after I use hard tap water. I watch the heating process closely and press the power-off button shortly after small bubbles start forming. Then I pour the water into a cast iron pot, let it cool down to suit the needs of whatever tea I’m making, and pour the hot water over the tealeaves that are sitting tight in a closely placed gaiwan.
There is no one best way to measure the readiness of hot water. Obviously, today one can accomplish such task with built-in or portable thermometers. However, I find pleasure in traditional ways and base my judgment on the size and shape of water bubbles. So far, I’ve heard about two classification systems: the method dating back to the Tang Dynasty that categorizes water bubbles as ‘fisheyes, joined pearls, and surging waves’, and a more complex Ming Era classification that describes bubbles as ‘shrimp eye, crab eye, fisheye, joined pearls, and surging waves’.
During and before the Ming Dynasty, Chinese only drank green tea, so it was quite important to keep the temperature low. It was later, during the Qing era, that black, wulong, and other teas requiring higher brewing temperatures started to gain popularity.
Everything I’ve written so far describes my own experience and preferences. I strongly recommend that you experiment with various ways of choosing and preparing water before and after marking down any particular approach as your favorite. Namely, with the same amount of tea, type of ware, and other conditions try to use the following types of water:
- Tap water
- Bottled water (cheap and pricey, from several manufacturers)
- Spring water
- Distilled water
Use all four and compare the resulting brews as you go through the water types one by one.
Having done a bit of experimenting myself, I have arrived at the following conclusions:
- Distilled water yields by far the worst results. The tea is notably qi-less and deflavored beyond recognition.
- Good spring water works best.
- Some bottled water is not bad at all, although it isn’t significantly better than my regular tap water. But again, aquasystems differ immensely, so in your city tap water might give you the worst results.
Here is the bottom line: if you have already purchased some decent tea and want to make the most of it, you need to have good water to make it happen. Find a local source, preferably a natural spring, and try it out!