Water: The Other Important Ingredient

Our favorite beverage requires the blending of two natural ingredients: fine tea and clear water. In ancient China, water from only its ten most revered springs was considered essential to making its esteemed tribute teas. Should you not find it convenient to draw water from these ancient fabled springs, the following is a guide through the baffling maze of today's alternate choices.

With the downturn in soft drink sales and the upward trend for bottled waters that can be carried with you everywhere, water sources are legion. Fortunately for all of us, the $35 billion water industry is highly regulated by both the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and local public health departments. So, if the label says SPRING on it, then the water MUST come from a spring. By that same measuring stick, if the bottle says glacial, the water has to come from a glacier, and artesian water has to come from water above a water table or well.

For non-geologists, a spring is a hole in the earth into which the water flows in a natural way. Boreholes are man-made wells drilled near natural springs and form a clean and hygienic way of extracting water that must have the same chemical makeup as the spring water to earn the word spring on the label.

Artesian waters come from wells that go through a confined underground aquifer and pumped to the surface. Some well-known Artesian well water in the U.S. are Tyler Mountain Water, West Virginia, Springsweet, New Mexico, and Kentwood Springs, Louisiana.

About one-fourth of all bottled water sold in the U.S. is purified from municipal water sources. In other words, bottlers take the same tap water that runs into your kitchen, purify it, bottle it, and sell it back to you cleaner and fresher. The purification process uses a number of methods, namely, reverse osmosis, deionization, activated carbon filtration, or distillation, and each aims to remove bacteria, algae, dirt, chlorine or unpleasant-tasting elements. Purified waters are healthful and rarely have bacteria, but sometimes they lack the exact minerals that are needed to interact with tea leaves to bring out the best flavor in the cup. Some tea drinkers prefer distilled water for its softness, but others believe it creates a flat dull taste to tea, and use distilled waters for humidifiers and irons instead.

Nearly all tea vendors believe that good-quality spring water is essential to bringing out the best flavors in tea. Many bottled spring waters can be found right on your grocer's shelves, including, but not limited to: Poland Spring from Maine; Cobb Mountain, Colorado; Calistoga Springs or Adobe Springs, California; Volvic from the Auvergne area of France; Mountain Valley, Arkansas; Saratoga from New York, and Belmont Springs from Massachusetts. Each of these has just enough minerals in it to mix with the polyphenols in tea to make a good cup. Canadian bottled waters are frequently from natural glaciers and add a refreshing note to teas: Castle Rock, Music and Naya are three of note. Some waters, like Evian and some from Australia are totally pure, so pure in fact, that they leave teas tasting flat, yet the waters are delicious "plain" for drinking. Perhaps the reason is that some naturally-occurring minerals are needed to mix with the polyphenols of tea leaves. (These are our favorites; your local spring water sources are probably as good if not better for freshness.)

Although we don't need every single one of our 100,000 tastebuds to tell the difference between carbonated (with bubbles) or non-carbonated (no bubbles,) we do use them to taste the difference between flat or lively waters. Some elements we can detect are ferric (iron) salts, (salty,) calcium or magnesium ions, calcium hydrocarbonate or magnesium hyrocarbonate (often found in hard waters but very difficult to taste; however, they often form a residue at the bottom of bottles). Other tastes to check are chlorine, (slightly acidic) over-carbonation (dirty) and chemicals (acrid or bitter).

You can do a tasting of different waters with friends. Taste them at room temperature and rate them for sweet, bitter, acid, or "other." The ideal water tastes "fresh" but leaves no after taste. To increase your perception, hold your nostrils together and sip, then breathe naturally and sip. The element of smell is very influential in how water will taste to you, so do it both ways.

As if tasting wine, swirl a little water in a clear cup to check the clarity or cloudiness of the water; then, sniff the water, literally sticking your nose into the glass just atop the water. If it's plastic or sulfur smelling, grade tough! Other negatives are mustiness or the sharp whiff of chlorine.

Next, taste a little, about a teaspoon. (Unlike wine that can intoxicate, you can swallow waters, but if you prefer not to, have a spitting bucket available.) Tasting should be based on whether or not you detect saltiness, sulfur, iron, chemicals or dirt. Does it taste and smell fresh or stale/flat?

Then, of course, the real test is to take the top two or three favorites and make the same tea with each. And, remember, as Confucius said, "Let YOUR palate by your guide."

Although bottled waters are easily accessible (or you can have large suppliers deliver them to your door,) they do create plastic recycling concerns and can be expensive. One alternative is to filter water from the tap. It can be as simple as a water filtration system that uses a large clear plastic pitcher in which a carbon filter is inserted. Just pour cold water into the pitcher, and as it flows from the top bowl to the bottom, the filter screens out unwanted particles to make fresh water in just a few minutes. Refrigerate and water is available whenever you need it. These filters last at least two months, and at this modest cost, you not only can use the water for tea, but in cooking everything from pasta to soups. (The flavor of your cooking, and baking, will greatly improve!) Some brands to check are Brita, Braun or Bodum.

The other technique is to attach a permanent filter system right onto your kitchen faucet. Some to check are Puro-Twist, Nice & Easy Microtwin, Puretouch by Moen, Culligan's Crystal Quest Plus, Aquavitae and Seagull IV. Some require replacement of filtering elements once or twice a year, others every two months. The advantages are no refilling of a pitcher, fresh water is available with the turn of a tap, and some provide the option of either filtered water for cooking and drinking or unfiltered for washing hands or dishes.

Clean, healthful, delicious-tasting water is not only critical to your health, it is an absolute for making a great cup of tea. Make high-quality water a high priority - you'll really notice the difference!