Are you sacrificing a great cup of tea because your water leaves a little something to be desired? Water is the single biggest ingredient in your cup of tea so making sure you have great water quality is a great idea; especially if you have a well!
What is Water Quality?
Well the answer, like that of what is quality tea is, it depends. Water quality can be subjective and depends on the application. It’s really probably better to think in terms of fitness for use. Quality water for swimming, showering, and washing clothes is a very different discussion from the water quality desired for tea.
Its important to start off with a baseline. A large part of what we are trying to do when we make a cup of tea is steep leaves in water in order to extract the favor (and usually caffeine as well) from the leaves. The leaves contain both water soluble and water in-soluble compounds that can impact flavor. And some of these compounds are more soluble than others at a given temperature. We are looking to extract desirable flavor compounds while minimizing the tannins which result in bitterness.
So for tea we are looking for the ideal water to extract the right amount of flavor.
All We Want is Fresh Clear Water, Right?
Since we are looking for the best water to extract the right balance of flavor what does this look like? In short, fresh clean water, without off odors, and which has some minerals but isn’t too hard. Sounds easy right? Here are a few things you will want to know.
- Tap water is not the same across the country. Some areas have naturally harder (or softer) water than others. Hardness being a measure of dissolved minerals. The ideal hardness for tea is between 50 and 100 parts per million.
- Calcium in water creates scale which damages electric tea kettles and increases the energy required to boil water.
- Public water supplies may have added chlorine and fluoride, may not be as soft as desired, and after travelling through a network of pipes, may not be as clean as you think.
- Private (aka well) water may be all over the map. It depends where you live, how deep a well you have, what the local geology looks like, and more. While well water is tested for new wells this is minimal testing, primarily for coliform. It’s not necessarily for radon, pesticides, hardness, or other things which impact water quality.
- We do not want distilled water or reverse osmosis water. The former leaves behind all minerals but not volatile organic compounds (for example benzene or other fuel-related components). The latter provides pure water with no minerals; flat, boring, and providing an equally boring cup of tea.
Getting Great Water Quality for Tea
First and foremost get your water tested. If you are on public water you can get a good baseline from the annual water quality report put out by your jurisdiction. However, this will only have basic information in it and won’t account for what happens on the journey from source to destination. It’s a great idea to get your personal water supply tested. If you are on a well this is really a must as water quality changes over time due to groundwater changes or due to damage to your well head or casing. As a homeowner you will only know the full details of your water by testing yourself. The CDC offers some thoughts on testing.
After testing, consider available solutions to address your water situation. This may be a basic sediment filter, a carbon filter to remove odors and other organics, softening through sodium (salt) ion exchange, and/or scale inhibitors. Its important to realize that there generally is not a one-sized fits all solution, you may use a combination of methods, and you may want to consider cost and options for treating all your water or only drinking water.
One more note on water quality. While we stated that its different from place to place there are exceptions for large nationwide coffee/tea chains and similar establishments. These businesses are looking for an exact flavor experience every time regardless of which shop you visit. These establishments actually use reverse osmosis to remove everything from the water. Then they use a pre-formulated solution to add back the exact mineral content for exactly the same water, everywhere!
Finally, A Note on Descaling Your Electric Kettle
We find it amusing that the answer to scale or calcium buildup in your kettle is to purchase special descaling chemicals. However, regular descaling, as if it occurs at the same rate everywhere, is exactly what many electric kettle manuals even claim you should do! Scale, or calcium buildup depends on water hardness which, as we’ve seen, varies dramatically across the country as well as between well and municipal water. So descaling monthly is a bit inappropriate for many consumers. Regardless, you can use white vinegar to remove scale, so why buy something else? More importantly, if you are looking to enjoy your tea and you have excessive mineral buildup in your kettle then you have a bigger problem: hard water. By now you know that the first step is to have your water tested so you know what you are dealing with, can treat it appropriately to have great water quality, and ultimately have a great tea experience.