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A Tale of Four Waters

This posting describes an unusual tea-tasting event that we held in the store on Saturday September 13, 2008. We wanted to test the proposition that differently sourced waters can produce vastly different palate experiences in the resulting brews. In the tea world, and in extant literature on tea, the crucial importance of the quality of water  has been accepted wisdom at least since the first great tea sage Lu Yu wrote, some 1250 years ago, a treatise on the twenty best sources of water for tea in China. This was a companion volume to his still highly regarded book The Classic of Tea.

Our own experience prior to this tasting event tended to confirm this point. Nevertheless, we wanted to conduct a rigorous contemporary test, and it occurred to us that one of our monthly tea-tasting events would be a great occasion to do so.What we found, as described below, both confirmed this principle but also produced several surprises. Following is the description of that event that we posted on the “Upcoming Events – Special Events” section of our website:


Tea is Mostly Water: How the Qualities of Water Influence Brewing Tea
We know that water from one source tastes better than water from another source. But few of us actually test how using water from differing sources influences how tea leaves brew tea. In this unusual comparative tea tasting, we will brew several teas using waters from distinctly different sources. Given conditions as identical as we can make them (particularly water temperature, brewing vessel and amount of leaf) except for the differing water sources, we may be amazed to discover that not just taste can be affected by which water we're using; even the color and intensity of the tea liquor may be visibly different. Join us for some fun, comparative science in service of the spiritual art of brewing tea that provides health and tastes sublime.

We decided that it would be best to create a blind testing where our customers would serve as unbiased testers. Tasters were provided with a form to record notes. In the actual event, roughly one dozen people participated. While the tasting was blind to everyone but myself (blind to other Many Rivers staff as well), I did tell tasters beforehand which water sources we were using:

  1. Distilled bottled water from the supermarket
  2. Sebastopol city tap water
  3. Alhambra bottled mountain spring water
  4. Untreated local well water from a shallow 30 ft well in my backyard, about 100 ft from an artesian spring on a neighbor’s property

We began by tasting the four waters without making tea – but that morning I boiled a quantity of each of the four samples, and allowed them to cool to room temperature, because I wanted the tasters to try the water just as it would be when used to make tea. This had the benefit of removing the chlorine from the city water sample (boiling removes the chlorine gas added to water to kill disease organisms).Tasters were mixed, but there was agreement that the water that was eventually revealed to be distilled water was very drinkable. Several tasters preferred the distilled water over the other three. Preferences were fairly evenly mixed among all four waters.

Then in the order of waters listed above, we first brewed a green tea (Lu Shan Clouds & Mist), then an oolong (Phoenix Mtn. Single Grove Almond Fragrance), and finally a black (Selimhill Estate 2nd Flush Darjeeling) from each of the four water sources. We took great care to use the same amount of leaf in each case, and used the same temperature water, in identical brewing vessels.

The most notable clear-cut reaction of tasters was their “anti-preference” for the distilled water source for all three teas. This pronounced distaste for tea brewed with distilled water strongly supports the view that dissolved mineral content is crucial for producing tasty teas. We expected this result, and our tasters confirmed it.

The biggest surprise of the tasting was that more tasters preferred the green tea brewed in Sebastopol city water to the other two non-distilled choices! (Although there were preferences expressed for each of these other non-distilled water sources.) I did NOT expect that result at all! As I understand it, this water comes from wells deep under the nearby Russian River, so that it consists of river water naturally filtered by 100 ft of sediments. In any event, with chlorine removed, it was the top vote-getter for green tea in our blind tasting.For the oolong and black teas, preferences were more or less evenly distributed among the three non-distilled water sources.So there you have it! I would summarize the noteworthy conclusions to our blind tasting as follows:

  1. Water that tastes good to drink may or may not be good for brewing tea
  2. Distilled water does NOT work for brewing tea. Tasters reported a flatness of taste for water brewed with this water
  3. Surprisingly, Sebastopol city water makes very acceptable tea

Perhaps in 2009 we’ll conduct another tasting comparing a variety of other waters.

       

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