“Water is the mother of tea,” or so claims one Chinese proverb on the importance of the liquid we use for brewing our most treasured drink. But does the water you use really affect the taste of tea?

Chinese tea master Lu Yu, who wrote the first known guide to tea-drinking, The Classic of Tea, set out a hierarchy of the best water to use for tea in a chapter of his book. He claimed water from a mountain stream was the best, followed by river water, then water from a well. Even then he had a few things to say about the best kind of mountain streams: water from “slow-flowing streams, stone-lined pools or milk-pure pools” were preferred.

These days we have more choice as to where to source our water, but additionally some of the old sources are no longer recommended depending on where you live. While I know more than a few people who collect Australian mountain spring water for brewing tea, I wouldn’t dare use my local river water.

Natural sources

Many tea masters suggest that you should try to use water from where the tea is grown, as the tea has been fed from this water source. This suggests there is a symbiosis between drop and leaf, but in many cases this is impractical for tea drinkers who import their tealeaves from elsewhere, particularly remote areas of the world. This may, however, account for the fact that tea tastes better brewed near where it has been grown, not just for its freshness but also because of the complementary ecosystem.

If you do wish to obtain your tea water from a natural source, cleanliness of the fluid is obviously a major factor, but so is oxygen content and mineral content.

Moving, as opposed to stagnant, water is best for both cleanliness and oxygen. Lu Yu may have shunned water from waterfalls as too fast-moving—he said drinking tea brewed from this source would cause ‘neck issues’—but the faster the water, the more oxygen and the more oxygen, the more flavor is drawn from the tealeaves when brewed.

Mineral content is another point of contention for tea drinkers. Minerals commonly found in water, such as calcium, magnesium, sulphates and salts, work differently with different teas. It seems a small amount of these minerals bring out the complexity, flavor and mouthfeel of black teas and oolongs, whereas white and green teas work best with fewer minerals as the taste of the water overwhelms the taste of the tea.

Household water

If you live in a country where the tap water is good to drink, water from this source is usually okay to brew tea for most tea drinkers (though unthinkable for tea connoisseurs). Always use freshly drawn cold water to maximize the oxygen in the fluid.

If you have hard water, which contains a lot of calcium, magnesium and other metals, you may find the tea tastes a bit metallic and may wish to filter your water or use softeners, though for tea it is better to have as few additives to the water as possible.

Fluoride and chlorine are also two enemies of fine tea and most filters, whether attached to a tap or in a jug, will do a decent job of removing these. This is the most practical option for many serious tea drinkers.

Bottled water

There are so many brands of bottled water on the market that I don’t have time to go through each to make a recommendation but some of the things you should consider are:

  • Mineral water versus spring water: As with the discussion about mineral content in ‘Natural sources’ above, tea tastes different depending on whether it has been bottled at the source, as with the definition of ‘spring’ water, or whether it has been purified, then had minerals added. Check the ingredients panel if unsure.
  • How is the water stored? Plastic bottles are the most common but they also affect the taste of the water and therefore the tea. Foil-lined containers are a better alternative.
  • Bottled distilled water is also an option if you can’t get potable water in your area and other bottled water tastes bad. Being the most neutral of all waters, people have complained that it does make tea taste a little flat, however.

For the most part, tea drinkers can get away with brewing water they get at home. If you are curious about how different waters taste, it costs very little to do an experiment comparing naturally sourced water with household tap water (filtered or unfiltered) and bottle water. Try it with your favorite tea and let us know which you prefer!

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