David Lee Hoffman’s appreciation for quality tea water reminds me of those of Lu Yu, the eighth century Tang Dynasty tea sage who instructed his readers in The Classic of Tea about how and where to collect water for tea:
“On the question of water to use, I would suggest that tea made from mountain streams is best, river water is all right, but well-water is quite inferior.”1
Other tea masters rave about the water used for brewing tea in the rural mountain villages of China where they go to find teas. They believe that where good tea grows, good water is often close at hand. As well, the experience of drinking a tea in its natural habitat with local stream water meant for that tea is an inimitable lifetime experience to be treasured.
Rites and rituals for heating water for tea can of course be found in Japanese tea ceremony. If you were to be a fly on the wall watching a Japanese tea master prepare for a gathering, you would see him or her carefully positioning hot coals in the hearth.
The vision of the gleaming scarlet coals heightens the aesthetic experience of having tea. Whether it influences the water or not is hard to say, but seeing and hearing the bright coals glowing and crackling under the large cast iron teapot makes the guest feel warm and cared for, as if they were existentially “home”. There are even ceremonies to mark the seasons by changing the hearth itself. The act of brewing water for tea is that important.
If you don’t have the time or will to go to the mountains to collect water for tea, and you don’t happen to have a tea brewing hearth or a fire pit nearby, you will probably, like most of us, be using tap water heated in a tea kettle on a gas or electric range.
You can still attain an easily-met, higher standard by simply filtering the water. You can find a variety of filters, some that are quite sophisticated and are installed in your water system, and some that are more basic, like a Brita® filter over a plastic jug. You can also put a special piece of whole-stalk bamboo charcoal into your tea kettle, which absorbs undesirable chemicals and odors while your water heats up. (These can be found in some Asian tea shops and in places like San Francisco’s Japantown). However you do it, it’s worth the effort of filtering local tap water. Your tea will taste better this way.
In my final blog about the importance of water for tea, I will talk about the ideal water temperatures for making the best tasting tea.
-Jennifer for Samovarlife
Jennifer Leigh Sauer, is a freelance photographer, award-winning video journalist, and author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of The Way to Tea: Your Adventure Guide to San Francisco Tea Culture (2007). Click here to reach her by email.
1, 2: The Classic of Tea, translated by Francis Ross Carpenter (Ecco Press, 1974)