There are only two components to a great cup of tea. The tea leaf and the water you steep it in. For years I’ve been a tea fanatic, and for just as long I’ve been studying the impact of water on the flavor of a great cup of tea.
Over the years I’ve traveled the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Central and South America, where I’ve enjoyed a hot cup of yellow coca “tea” high in the Andes Mountains. In the mid 90s I went with my family to live in Malaysia and we enjoyed visiting the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. From Malaysia I traveled to Japan, China, Thailand and many other Asian countries. And of course, I’ve traveled all over the US. Enjoying a great drink of tea (or herbal infusion) was a natural part of my travels. In all cases, the taste and appearance varied. Sometimes the difference was subtle, sometimes glaring.
Why is it that my cup of tea varied so much? Most fellow tea fanatics focus on the differences of the wonderfully aromatic tea leaf. I also enjoy noticing the slight differences in the tea leaf; the characteristics that make one crop of tea leaves distinctly different from others. My background in the water industry has given me insight into tea’s main ingredient. I can’t help but notice the significant difference that water makes in a great cup of tea. Water’s influence on the taste and appearance of tea is very often overlooked.
Water is simply H2O in a liquid form (its ice below 0oC and steam above 100oC at sea level). Water has this amazing property of being a good solvent – meaning that almost everything dissolves in it to a greater or lesser degree. And often this is not obvious to the human eye. I could put 10 glasses of water in front of you and you could not tell them apart by looking at them and yet the water in each glass could be very different. One may be salt water, one could be contaminated with bacteria, one with significant calcium or magnesium, and so on. If you were to taste these seemly similar glasses of water they can have quite a different taste.
No matter where you go in the world, the composition of the water is different. Even in the same city water can vary from one location to another. To be precise, the water is the same, but the mix of contaminants in the water changes from location to location. Many of these contaminants distort the true taste of tea (not to mention that they can be harmful).
There are many different water treatment methods, and these methods differ widely. Carbon filters and reverse osmosis are the most common. But both are what we call “barriers-methods”. Barrier-methods produce variable results and the effectiveness declines over time, which means that you never know what level of purity you are getting. This decline in performance over time is why filters must be frequently changed.
So what other alternatives are there? I am an avid fan of fresh steam-distilled water. Steam distillation appliances replicate nature’s Hydrologic Cycle which is what we all depend upon to get fresh water. The heat from the sun causes water molecules to evaporate and eventually result in clouds. The clouds eventually release their water in the form of rain – and absent air pollution this rainwater is very pure. Each time it rains, we are getting a new batch of water. Thus rainwater (and fresh steam-distilled water) is the freshest water on earth. This makes a huge difference in the taste.
I prefer my tea to be made with pure steam-distilled water made fresh every day. This is even better than bottled water, which may be pure, but it’s not fresh. The problem with pure water in plastic bottles is the interaction between the water and the plastic. This interaction is compounded by how long the water has been in contact with the plastic, how hot the plastic has been and the exposure to sunlight. Bottled water today typically has a two year shelf-life.
I’ve found this to be my secret ingredient for a great cup of tea. Although I still travel the world and savor my cup of tea everywhere I go, I find that I can’t wait to take the tea leaves home with me and make my own tea with my own pure, fresh water. More and more tea houses are deciding to use the fresh, steam-distilled water to make their tea. I love these changes and can’t wait to visit these destinations of excellence.