Of all the mystery that surrounds a cup of tea, the most unobtrusive is the element of water. From carefully chosen tea accessories, selected tea leaves to the nuances of additives, all of which are scrutinized to create the perfect steep, one often neglects the key element that makes 99% of tea.
According to the writings of the 8th century, Tang dynasty philosopher Lu Yu in “Cha Jing”, or “Classic of Tea”, the best water for brewing tea came from the center of a swiftly moving mountain stream. He also believed the same mountain-spring water used to nourish the tea plants is the one that makes the perfect steep.
While Yu likely knew that good-quality water needed no purification or enhancement, he understood that many reading his book would not have access to the best water, and also wrote the following – “During the first boil, add a measure of salt appropriate to the amount of water to harmonize the flavor.”
Given that few have access to clean, fresh mountain water for tea today, it is best to modify it as desired to make it suitable for steeping tea. One should bear in mind these five simple rules for making the perfect cup of tea.
NOTE THE TEMPERATURE
Different types of tea have different requirements, and not following guidelines leads to a subpar steep. In boiling water, delicate green and white teas will overcook, leaving less of their delicate flavors to reach the senses. It is ideal to steep delicate teas at 75-80 degrees Celsius, whereas oolong teas should be brewed at 80-85 degrees. Black teas and traditional morning teas benefit from boiling temperatures, while herbal teas can be brewed with water right from the kettle.
BOIL FRESH EVERY TIME
Re-boiling a kettle is an oft-made mistake, but for a flawless cup of tea, it is a secret no-no. Boiling, as well as letting it stand or boiling it for too long, reduces the oxygen content of water. Because freshwater equals fresher tasting tea and oxygen equals life, one should always make the extra effort to replenish the kettle. It’s also a good idea not to fill the kettle to the brim if one doesn’t want to waste any water.
UNDERSTANDING pH VALUE
The flavor of your tea is also affected by the pH level of the water. Pure water has a pH of 7, whereas acidic lemon juice has a pH of 2, and alkaline bleach has a pH of roughly 11. Tap water’s pH ranges from 6.5-9.5, with harder, more mineralized water having a higher pH.
Ideally, water should be neutral with a pH value of around 7. Alkaline, mineral water tends to dilute the flavor of tea or mask the subtle flavors of the leaves. Although slightly acidic water is preferred to alkaline, balance is the name of the game when it comes to pH.
Distilled water does not make a good cup of tea. Despite perfect pH value, distilled water is the polar opposite of hard water, deficient in minerals and producing a bland steep. Mineral content and tea are similar to salt and food. It should not overwhelm the senses and be just right to enhance the flavors.
NOTHING LIKE SPRING WATER
A bottle of balanced spring water is ideal for brewing the perfect cup of tea. In the absence of this, one should use a filter that removes the ‘bad’ material such as chlorine, while leaving the good minerals alone. Although it is more expensive than the budget water filter options, it will be less expensive in the long term than buying bottled water.
A bad tea will not be saved by good water, but a good tea can be improved by using a certain type of water. Because there are so many different types of teas, there can only be guidelines for which water will work best in your cup. Experimenting with different bottled waters and tap water is an ideal way to find what best suits your palate. Some teas are better suited to certain types of water and testing different qualities yield interesting results. At the end of the day, each cup shall always be unique in its own special way.
Feature banner by Santiago Lacarta