Water for Tea

by Arina on May 23, 2010

in Tea Basics,Water

Water drops

As a Chinese saying goes, 水为茶之母 [shuǐ wéi chá zhī mǔ] – water is the mother of tea.

To convince you that these ancient words of wisdom hold good, let me start with some number crunching. A cup of tea is roughly just 1% tea, and remaning 99% are water. Here, I do not consider tibetan regions or Britain, where yak butter or cow milk added to tea complexify the equation. In my Chinese Tea Tasting Handbook I found a quote of a certain Zhang Dafu, a guy who lived in he 16th-17th century and who established more complicated formulas:  you can obtain a 100%-perfect tea if you use 100%-perfect water and just 80%-perfect tea leaves. But if you use 80%-perfect water together with 100%-perfect tea leaves, your tea will be just 80%-perfect. Are you still with me? Well, all the above essentially means that a good water can raise the profile of your tea, and a bad water can hurt it.

What types of water exist and which of them do we want for our tea?

  • First, based on the mineral content, the water can be categorized as hard ( [yìng]) and soft (软 [ruǎn]). Roughly speaking, a hard water is the one heavy in minerals, especially calcium and magnesium, and a soft water is not. A mineral composition can affect the taste of your water, and we often actually prefer the taste of the water with high mineral content. All else being equal, your choice which water to drink is a matter of personal taste. But for tea, a soft water with low mineral content would be the most appropriate.
  • Second, based on the pH (potential for hydrogen ion concentration) of the water, it can be classified as neutral (pH around 7), acid (pH below 7) or alkaline (pH above 7). For tea, a neutral or very slightly acid water would be the best.
  • Third, if the water, whatever its source, has undergone some cleanup, it can be classified as either distilled or purified. Distilled water is obtained by boiling the water and condensing the steam. As a result of the process, the water would have lost all its mineral contents. You can find a bottled version of a distilled water in the shops. Bad news, such water may only be good for your iron, but not for your palate or your tea. Purified water is a water from which impurities and/or minerals have been removed . There are many processes that can purify water (e.g. reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, ultraviolet oxydation etc.), therefore the definition remains rather vague. But we definitely want our water to be cleaned of common pollutants (chlorine, heavy metals, bacteria, dirt and sediment).

Water

To sum up, we would want to use for our tea a clean water with a neutral pH and a relatively low mineral content. Where to get this water?

  • Tap water. I consider tap water as the best environmental choice, provided it is clean (for the moment, it is not the case in Beijing). On the other hand, it can be too hard, as at our home in France. And there you can’t do much about it.
  • Tap water + purifying system. This is the next best environmental choice if your tap water is not of drinking quality. The filtering system can be as simple as a piece of bamboo charcoal, or as complex as a water ionizer. I found the National Geographic’s water filter buying guide particularly useful: it clearly describes the types of available water filters and what they remove, highlights environmental impact of using the filters and provides some valuable usage tips.
  • Bottled water. Definitely not the best environmental choice, but can be the only solution if the tap water is bad, but filtering system is beyond your budget.  Here the key is carefully reading the labels. I’ve done some water shopping in my nearest supermarket, returning home with 8 different water bottles and started reading the labels and tasting the contents.

Let’s start with purified waters.

  • Watsons Pure Distilled Water (屈臣蒸馏水 [qū chén shì zhēng liú shuǐ]), 400 ml. As it is a distilled water, no minerals have been preserved in the process. This water has a mineralised sister, and both are available in big bottles for home delivery at www.watsonswaterbj.com. I have found no information on the label regarding pH, but have seen in the Internet the notes from independent testing that its pH is 7.4. The label boasts this water to have been the official water of Beijing 2009 Marathon. So what? This water is tasteless. Being distilled, it is not good for your body either. For me, it is no-go.
  • Wahaha Purified Water for Drinking (娃哈哈饮用纯净水 [wáhāhā yǐnyòng chúnjìngshuǐ]), 596 mL. Again, no information on the label regarding pH; the notes from independent testing I came across say it is 5.3, much too acid in my opinion. There is a “bitter” taste in this water too: the love story between Wahaha and Danone followed by a stormy divorce, where the French giant was ousted from the joint venture, is a nice business lesson to learn.  Not out of compassion for fellow French, but solely based on the pH and taste, I would not use this water for tea.
  • Nestle Pure Life (雀巢优 [Quècháo yōu huó]), 550 mL. It is a purified water enhanced with minerals for taste. I found no information on the label regarding pH and mineral content. On the North-American site of Nestle, pH of Pure Life is stated as a range between 5.4 and 7.4, which is neutral to acid, calcium is 7.0 – 15, magnesium 0 – 4.3 – both quite low. It is actually the water I currently use at home in 5 GL barrels for cooking and drinking, I’m OK with the taste. The major concern here is the possibility of this water being fake. While researching for this post, I’ve also heard of some people boycotting all products of Nestle brand because they view some of Nestle’s marketing practices as unethical. If this does not sound as a major concern and you are confident not to buy a fake product, then I think this water could be used to make your tea.

Now we are moving on to mineral waters, local brands.

  • Nongfu Spring (农夫山泉 [nóngfū shānquán]), natural mineral water, 550 ml. Its pH is 6.8 – 7.8, calcium is above 400, magnesium is above 50. Personally, I have nothing against its taste, but objectively it is much too heavy on minerals to use it for tea. This water is also available in hard polycarbonate jugs. I really don’t recommend buying those.I found this plastic seriously modifies the taste. Even worse, some of this plastic’s components are carcinogenes.
  • L’Origin Eau Minerale Naturelle (蓝涧饮用 天然矿泉水[lán jiàn yǐnyòng tiānrán kuàngquánshuǐ]), natural mineral water, 500 mL. I like the French touch in this water’s name, but is it a criterion? Let’s scroll the label for more relevant information. pH value is within 6.5 – 8.5 which is neutral to alkaline, calcium is 36.0 – 62.0 mg/L, magnesium is 9.20 – 19.20 mg/L, it is also rich in strontium. For me, this water is quite heavy on minerals and rather alkaline, which may be good for your health, but probably not the best choice for the tea.
  • Laoshan (崂山矿泉水[Láoshān kuàngquánshuǐ]), mineral water, 550 mL. pH is 6.0 to 8.0, which is rather neutral. Calcium is  19.0 – 38.0 mg/L, magnesium is 3.5 – 8.5 mg/L, which is lowar than the other two. I found the taste of this water quite hard, maybe because of relatively high natrium content. Still, of the three brands I’ve tasted, this may be the most suitable option. Lu Yu would probably endorse this choice, because it is a mountain spring.

And finally, some imported beauties from France, coincidentally both of them Danone, wa-ha-ha! I find the environmental impact of bringing them here huge, and list them here only for comparison.

  • Evian. Natural mineral water from the French Alps, 500 mL. pH is 7.2, calcium is 80, magnesium is 26. It used to be my favourite drinking water back in France. Here in Beijing I don’t buy it. I think, it has quite high mineral content and would look for softer alternatives.
  • Volvic. Natural mineral water from France volcano land. pH is 7, calcium is 11.5, magnesium is 8.  I think it’s a good match for a tea. And I like the taste! It can be my water of choice when we are back to France.

And what about you? Which water do you use for making your tea?

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