Good water - the key ingredient to a great cup of tea
By Emilie Holmes
Whether you’re a loose leaf aficionado or make your morning cup with teabags, you’ll know that to make a cup of tea you only need two things - the tea itself and hot water. It should therefore come as no surprise to know that, just as we work hard to find the best leaves, getting the water right plays an equally important role in ensuring that the cup of tea is as delicious as it can be. It fact it can often be the only difference between a good cup and a completely unpalatable one - bad water making even the best leaves taste lack-lustre once brewed. Here are a few things worth knowing to ensure the best possible flavour every time:
Freshly drawn water
First things first, for the best, liveliest cup of tea you’ll need freshly drawn water. That means don’t just flip the switch on your kettle and reheat water that’s been sitting there already - start again by filling your kettle with fresh water. The reason for this is that the best flavour is drawn out of the tea leaves using oxygen-rich water. Water that has been sitting a while, or more likely boiled over and over again, will lack oxygen, leaving your cup of tea tasting flat. Not only is this is one of the easiest ways to improve your morning brew, it is also a good one to get right for the sake of the environment.
Although ditching full kettles of old water is no good thing, according to the Energy Saving Trust, getting into the habit of filling the kettle with only as much as you need (instead of filling to the top each time) could save enough electricity in a year to run nearly half of all the street lighting in the country.
Hard or soft water?
Truth be told, tea will always taste at its absolute best when brewed using the same local, spring water that is used to nurture the tea plants at origin, but that’s not much use to all of us at home! Depending on where you live, you’ll likely know whether your area has hard or soft water.
Unfortunately for us Londoners, the water here is very hard due to the high levels of naturally occurring calcium carbonate (the chalky substance that causes limescale) and magnesium compounds, making it a poor starting point for tea. This mineral-rich, hard water is alkaline and tends to produce a thick, chalky and sometimes even metallic-tasting cup. It is also slow and inefficient at extracting flavour. Soft water, on the other hand, is acidic. Though that makes it much more efficient in dissolving flavour, it tends to happen too quickly, meaning your cup will often over extract, leaving it tasting bitter and astringent. There is therefore a happy medium to be found - as close to pure water as possible in terms of acidity, with a ph of around 7.
Our coffee partners, who quite rightly place a similar emphasis on good water, often opt for Reverse Osmosis - a water purification system that strips many of the undesirable particles from water. However, while that might work for coffee, unless a perfect mix of minerals and compounds is re-introduced, RO water more often than not makes for a flat tasting cup of tea, in the same way that distilled or ‘pure’ water would - it simply doesn’t have enough mineral content. So what is the bottom line?
At the Tea Bar, after many, many trials with most options on the market, we opted for the simple BWT Bestmax cartridges which came up trumps in all of our blind tastings. At home, however, your options are either buying bottled spring water to use when making tea, or filtering your existing tap water - either a Brita filter like this will do the job, or opt for the more sophisticated BIBO which will get around the faff of ever-changing cartridges, giving you both hot and cold filtered water on demand.
Finally, it’s important to remember the role that the temperature of that water is in ensuring the best possible flavour in your cup. Water that is too hot can burn the compounds in the tea, destroying the delicate aromas and leaving you with a bitter, astringent cup - green tea, for example, is often ruined this way, instead of offering a smooth, clean and even sweet cup. Similarly, water that is not hot enough won’t release all of the flavour compounds, leaving the cup tasteless - the polyphenols that deliver flavour in black tea, for example, can fail to be released if the water isn’t just off the boil. To get the full flavour that the description of the tea you’ve got in your hand promises, you’re therefore best following the instructions carefully on this front.
General rule of thumb? Black teas and herbs like heat - for Oolongs, Greens and Whites start to bring the temperature down by either stopping the kettle when you start to see small bubbles appear, or by flipping the lid of the kettle once boiled and give it a few minutes to cool before it hits the leaves. Even better - get yourself a temperature controlled kettle, like this one.
Our customers often ask us what makes the tea taste so good at the Tea Bar, and one of the key factors is the water. So when brewing our teas at home, have a go at making it with bottled spring water or filtering your tap water and see if you can taste the difference. You’ll be amazed at not only how much more vibrant the tea itself looks, but also how much more flavour you’ll get from the leaves.