©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer
Before tea there is water. While you invest time and money to procure great tea, you might also want to consider your investment in "gathering" and brewing water for tea.
Any cup of tea will be at its best when you use the finest water available, heated to the optimal temperature for the particular tea. While I don't profess to be a tea master, I've made it my life's work for the past three years or so to research tea for my book and blog by interviewing great tea masters. They all have different preferences and standards when it comes to water, and I'll share some of what I have learned from them.
One of the most engaging tea experiences I have had was my recent visit with the legendary tea master David Lee Hoffman. During this second tea encounter at Hoffman's home, he gave me the choice of having tea in his open-air teahouse or at a fire pit just behind the teahouse. Despite my appreciation for his gorgous teahouse which he built himself, I chose the latter. At the fire pit, we would be building a fire together as part of our tea gathering. I thought this would be fun, and I liked the idea of building a fire together for tea.
Brewing water this way seems to change the character of the water and certainly that of the tea experience. Hoffman told me that he regularly collects water for tea from an undisclosed local stream. He also occasionally makes a trip up to the Sierra Mountains and when he does, he collects water from high mountain streams that derive from glacial runoff. What's good about this water, he says, is that it has aerated from cascading and also picks up dissolved minerals along its journey. When possible, he brings a bit of this water back for making tea at home.
This is an amazing standard and reminds me that how we live is sometimes much more important than what we do. David Lee Hoffman's appreciation for quality tea water reminds me 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.
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 tea gathering, you would see him or her carefully positioning hot colas in the hearth. The vision of the gleaming scarlet coals is meant to heighten the aesthetic experience of having tea. Whether it influences the water or not is hard to say, but seeing the bright coals glowing 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 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 do what I've seen done for Japanese tea ceremony, which is to 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 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.
As an extra note, the distillation process is said to rid water of the minerals that bind with the tea to bring out its best flavor and character, so you will not want to use distilled water for brewing tea.