December 6, 2017

Water – the mother of tea

I came across a beautiful quote while visiting The China National Tea Museum which is located on the Jilong Mountain in Hangzhou. “Water is the mother of tea, the teapot is its father, and fire the teacher”. Sometimes the right message sticks with you at the right time and this time it stopped me in my tracks. Throughout my career in the tea industry I must have tried thousands of different teas experiencing an incredible range of flavours from sweet honeydew melon, smoky tobacco, cocoa and a bouquet of floral aromas. During this period, I was interested mostly in the grade of tea leaves, the age of the tea tree, harvest date and conditions of the terrain the tea trees were grown in. My focus had made me blind to 3 key elements that would enable this bouquet of aromas and flavours to be expressed. The loving embrace of the mother (water) the strength of the father (teapot) and the wisdom of the teacher (fire or heat).

This article will look at the mother (the water) and how her journey affects the delicate flavours of the tea leaves. To me, mother is a great metaphor for water. When I think of my mum, I feel her loving embrace, the way when she wrapped her arms around me, I felt safe and nurtured. In the same way, water effortlessly surrounds the tightly wrapped tea leaves allowing them to gently unravel from their slumber. She wakes you once or twice depending on how long you have been asleep for, then sits with you while your true potential is achieved.

Tea scholar and sage Yu Lu said “On the question of water to use, I would suggest that water drawn from the centre of a flowing mountain stream is best, river water is alright, but well-water is quite inferior.” Yu Lu was a renowned and an admired sage, it was said just by tasting the water presented Yu Lu was able to tell what area and region the water was from! You could say he was the first recorded water sommelier.

Now unless you’re living high in the mountains or have access to a natural spring, most of us will be using filtered tap water or bottled water when it comes to making a pot of tea. Though through the right methods it is possible to bring the water quality back to that quality of a flowing mountain steam.
First the basic water terminology hard, soft and distilled.

The Hard Mother (Water) is packed full of minerals like calcium and magnesium, formed when she (water) filters through deposits of limestone and chalk. Hard drinking water may have moderate health benefits as it’s rich in minerals, but when it comes to brewing teas it could be a nightmare! When brewing fine teas in hard water the boiling processes will leave a calcium and lime scale build up in the kettles and even taint your teaware, affecting the taste of any teas brewed. Personally I would not recommend brewing any teas under 80% oxidation in hard water. In saying that if you have found differently please let me know. Hard water can be found both in tap water and some bottled mineral waters.

The Soft Mother (Water) has fewer minerals like calcium or magnesium to interfere with the delicate flavours of your tea. Soft water mostly comes from peat or igneous rock sources, such as granite. With fewer of these heavy minerals teas brewed in soft waters will be sweeter and more refined.
The Distilled mother (water) is at the other end of the spectrum and has had many of its impurities removed through distillation. Distillation involves boiling the water and then condensing the steam into a sterile collection container. With such a lack of minerals distilled waters can leave your teas dull or very flat with little character.

Filtered Tap water
Why filter tap water when in most developed areas tap water is safe to drink. Tap water travels through miles of a complicated underground pipeline system, picking up contaminants, pesticides and in some cases waste products. Disinfectants are used like chlorine, ammonia and or chloramines, then “fortified” with fluoride. While these additives are a necessary evil (without it, water-borne illnesses would plague our cities making millions sick every year) drinking tap water is a choice and with cost effective advancements made in home filtration systems these harmful bacteria’s and harmful chemicals can be removed, also by installing an in home water filtration system you can balance the ph of the water to neutral or slightly alkalised (around 8-9). Easily installed and cost effective compared to the cost of constantly buying bottled water.

Through using water filtration systems, you can control the TDS of water, remove harmful chemicals creating a stable platform to brew your teas. If you would like to know more contact me and I will put you in touch with some recommended home water filtration companies.
Examples: Activated Carbon Filters, Reverse Osmosis, Alkaline/Water Ionizers & UV Filters

Bottled Water
There are 3 major types of bottle water on the market.
– Mineral water which can come from a natural well or from a spring, but must contain no less than 250 ppm of trace minerals. These minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, are good for a person’s health, and manually added to the water. Some people find mineral water to be harsher tasting than other types of bottled water due to the level of minerals present.

– Spring Water which comes from natural aquifers located around rock beds and soil, is naturally rich in trace minerals and is considered to be among the best overall types of water for its health benefits and rehydration.

– Purified Water is water that has been produced by distillation, deionization or reverse osmosis removing most of the minerals and ions.

With hundreds of bottled waters on the market we could fill the magazine with a review on each bottled water and its effects. If you do need to use bottled water look for Spring water with a TDS of 80-130. At this mineral level the mother (water) will have enough weight to allow the sweetness and flavour to be released from your favourite tea.

When it comes to brewing tea if you do not have a water filtration system set up then I can see bottled water is a necessity for brewing good tea. But let’s be honest, bottled water is not as regulated as we may think with TDS ranging from 005 – 300, it’s expensive, and very wasteful. An estimated three litres of water is needed to produce just one litre for sale, roughly 17 million barrels of oil is required to produce all those bottles and what’s worse, other than they are not biodegradable is roughly 60% of those bottles will end up in the ocean and in landfills, polluting and poisoning water ways and wildlife.

So, when you can I would suggest using a quality water filtration system to purify your tap water or at least a bottled spring water using bio degradable plastic bottles.

We are all raised (produced) different like tea, some black, some green, some white and some buried under ground for years (pu-erh) before being able to reach our full potential. But to reach that full potential we require different mothers some more hard and others softer. So I say experiment with your favourite tea and see how it brews with different types of waters. Remember as tea enthusiasts it is our job to close off the triangle (the 3 key elements) The Mother, The Father & The Teacher to bring out the sweetness and full aroma and flavours of your favourite tea.

Michael Kinahan
elements tea company

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