A cup of tea simply can’t exist without water – this much we know! As the saying goes, “bread and water can so easily be toast and tea”. So it is entirely reasonable that the quality of the water will have an effect on the taste of your tea. In fact, it is crucial.
Sen no Rikyu’s Tsukubai at his residence in Sakai, Japan.
For instance, Japan is incredibly fortunate to have outstanding quality water straight from the tap, and it suits their teas perfectly. (As an aside, when we visited the family in Miyazaki last year and sat down with Shigeru, he leaned across the table and the very first thing he said was “what is your water like in England?!” He is fascinated by the chemical make up of water and the effect is has on tea). Whereas our water here in Dorset is at the completely other end of the spectrum to theirs.
Good quality water can elevate your tea into something truly great, revealing the complexities and nuances contained within your infusions. In China, it was said that great tea in ordinary water would become ordinary, and ordinary tea in great water would become better. So we can see how essential water can be in our enjoyment of tea.
Hard Water Here in Dorset we have the pleasure of some incredibly hard water packed full of minerals like calcium and magnesium (where we are is particularly chalky). It is also has a habit of scaling up kettles with limescale. Lovely. Boiling water removes any bacteria etc. but the minerals remain, and can have a large impact on the flavour of your tea. It can be nightmarish battling with calcified hard water while enjoying tea, especially when it comes to lighter infusions. White teas and Japanese green teas especially can suffer terribly as a result.
Soft Water The picture is a little more rosy here. There are fewer minerals to interfere with the flavour of your tea, although it should be noted that higher sodium levels can sometimes be troublesome. The main bit of good news is that you won’t have to de-scale your kettle anywhere near as much as us folks in Dorset, and we’re all secretly very jealous.
Pure water Pure distilled water, contrary to how it may appear, isn’t all that much good either. The complete lack of any minerals at all can leave your tea tasting quite ‘dull’ and flat. We want a little personality, but nothing too overbearing.
So what kind of water is best?
The renowned tea scholar Yu Lu said that water drawn from the centre of a flowing mountain stream is best. Seeing as many of us don’t have some useful mountains nearby, what other options do we have at our daily disposal?
Tap Water If you have hard tap water, an easy fix is to use a regular high street filter (various different kinds on the market). These typically charcoal filters will help remove some of the minerals that have a detrimental effect to the flavour of tea. We’ve had some success with the well known high street brand filter jugs.
If you want to take things to the next level, there is an array of very impressive filtration systems on the market. Reverse osmosis systems are quite amazing. Ideally, the pH you’re looking for with tea is something neutral – around 7 – and typically RO will sit somewhere between 5 and 6, but it is a world better than hard mains water scaling up your kettle and tainting your tea.
Bottled Water As the water in our Dorset area is very badly behaved, whenever we have a tasting session, or are trying a new tea for the first time, we look to bottled water. Mineral water is best avoided (the clue is in the name) so we opt for spring water instead. Just promise to use water from a responsible source and recycle the bottles when you’re finished.
Let’s finish with a good Chinese Proverb:
Water is the mother of tea, teapot its father, and fire the teacher.
In the area of Miyazaki on the island of Kyushu in Southern Japan, there is a small family of organic tea farmers making something absolutely outstanding…
Kamairi Cha Tea
High on the steep mountain sides near the coast, the Miyazaki family’s tea garden benefits from excellent soil and lower temperatures than lower-lying tea gardens. These other gardens begin their first harvest of the year around the middle of April, whereas the higher altitude garden begins six weeks later towards the end of May.
The Miyazaki family specialise in a particular kind of tea – they produce Kamairi-Cha (dry heated tea) – a tradition that is almost lost in modern tea making. In the early 20th century, Kamairi-cha as fairly popular, and steamed tea – the most popular method today – was made only in small quantities. By the mid-20th century, the split for Japanese tea was around 50/50, but today Kamairi-cha makes up just 1% of Japanese tea production.
The Miyazaki family have preserved this tradition with what could very well be the best Kamairi-Cha in the country, drying the leaves either by hand or using their old tea machine made in the 1950s (now the last of its kind). Usually, dry heated leaves ‘Kama’ loose much of their intense green colour after heating and develop a most roasted flavour compared with steamed tea. However, thanks to this family’s years of expertise and experience, they have produced a Kamairi-Cha that keeps the beautiful vibrant colour with bright green notes and soft, rounded character.
Inside the garden itself, the family grow a diverse range of eighteen different types of tea plants. For their stand-out Kamairi-Cha they use a varietal called the Sae Midori, a relatively rare member of the tea family known for its deep green colouring, sweetness and overall softness of flavour. (You’ll sometimes find it used for Gyokuro production).
I’m thrilled to say that we have procured a small amount of 500g from the family. On the first tasting it absolutely blew me away. I can only summarise its flavour as being a very well rounded, sweet grassy ‘hit’, tasting very much like a shade-grown Japanese green, followed by a sweet, bakey finish synonymous with Oolongs or pan-fried Chinese green teas. Its complexity reveals the astounding skill behind its production, and it gives me great pleasure to welcome it to our tea shop.
Tea, water, and temperature – a holy trinity when it comes to getting the very best from your tea leaves. In this post, we’ll look at how the temperature of the water effects flavour.
Temperature can have a remarkable effect on the taste of infused tea leaves. Ever had a green tea that tasted bitter and just plain unpleasant? Well, I suspect that water temperature had something to do with it. Here’s why.
The tea plant, camellia sinensis, produces all manner of different substances mainly called phenols. You’ll also find them in wine, chocolate and berries. Phenols play a key role in the overall flavour and appearance of the tea that you drink, and how you brew it can effect how these phenols behave (if you’d like a long sciencey post about how this all works, let me know in the comments and I’ll happily put on my lab coat). For instance – a sencha green tea infused with water from a rolling boil will most likely be very bitter. But if you use water at 60 – 70 degrees, and the tea takes on a life of its own. This isn’t because the tea is ‘burned’ by higher tempertures, although a burning toast analogy can be useful, but because certain tannins and catechins are released at higher temperatures which can impart a ‘bitter/astringent’ quality. This also happens if the tea is left to steep for too long.
Certain more robust, darker teas will sit very happily at higher temperatures. Those concentrated flavours can stand up to bitterness brought about through temperature for a stronger and more malty cup.
Here in the UK, I think most of us can relate to our grandmothers telling us to bring the pot to the kettle and pour boiling hot water straight onto the tea. Our grans weren’t entirely wrong on this – because the chances are, they were brewing black tea teabags for no more than around a minute or two. Then adding milk (and sugar if you were feeling fancy). Without milk, the end result probably didn’t taste that great. But it is absolutely fine for a ‘tea you can stand your spoon in’ situation. Outside of this, you can start having fun with temperature.
A question we’re asked a lot in our tea shop is – how can you tell what temperature your water is?
There are a two ways you can do this:
1.Use a thermometer. Any kitchen thermometer or temperature probe will be great. It could also be a great excuse to use one of those infared temperature guns…
Here are a couple of temperature ‘hacks’ you can use too: the average electric kettle will get your water – filtered, ideally – to around 97 degrees C, a decent boil. Turn the kettle off and open the lid. Let the water calm down and sit for around 1-2 mins. This will help take the edge off for most black teas.
For lighter teas, grab yourself a heat proof jug. Pour your freshly heated (just simmering) water into it, and give it a swirl. You’ll soon have taken 10 degrees off pretty much right away.
2. My favorite. Get yourself (or if you have a birthday coming up, drop hints for) a temperature variable kettle. These things are fantastic. I have one from Bosch that I use at home after upgrading from a perfectly good one made by Philips which came to a sticky end while moving house. They start at around £30, and will soon become your best friend.
I’ll leave you with a rule of thumb for what temperature different teas need. Think of it like this:
the lighter colour the tea leaf, the lower the temperature the water.
Easy. While you may find some impostors (like Silver Needle sneaking in at 80 degrees) it will generally serve you well.
With each tea you brew, I promise it will get easier and easier. You’ll soon be using your own judgement as to how you enjoy your tea, at what temperature, and how long it is infused. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes. You’ll know what to do simply through your tea instinct!
This spring we were lucky enough to be invited to a special tea day in Wazuka, Japan. Wazuka is a beautiful mountain valley between Kyoto and Nara, and is home to hundreds of tea fields. Taking the bus through the valley, as you look up at the mountains and down beside the streams, you see tea fields dotted all over the place – hugging the sides of mountains, and sitting in back gardens.
Wazuka is home to a cooperative of tea growers working together to harvest and process their tea. Rather than send their tea away to be processed, or each family having to buy expensive processing equipment, they put together to make their own tea factory where all their teas are steamed, rolled, and dried.
The process of making tea hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries. The only difference today is that the work once done by many hands has been passed to incredibly specialised machines.
The cooperative had a big community day, where locals can come and pick tea by hand in the fields in the morning, then process them in the afternoons using traditional hand methods, helping to keep the old crafts and skills alive. No tea-steaming machines here – just dry heat (Kamairi-cha), bamboo baskets, a giant wok, and lots of elbow grease!