How to make the perfect cup of tea: five tips for using the right water
What is the most important ingredient in a cup of tea? Arguably, the tea. But in terms of volume, your brew is pretty much just water. In order to make the perfect cup of tea it's therefore important that you get the water right.
The Classic of Tea, written by Lu Yun in 760 CE, suggests brewing with the same mountain-spring water used to nourish the tea plants while they were growing. Not the most practical suggestion if you live in South London, you needn't go this far in sourcing water for your tea. You should however bear in mind these five simple rules for making the perfect cup of tea.
1. Water Temperature
Different types of tea have different needs, and if you fail to pay attention to them, you'll end up with a less than adequate brew. Delicate green and white teas will overcook in boiling water, and fewer of their delicate flavours will reach your senses. More fragile teas suit a water temperature of around 75-80 degrees celsius, while sightlier hardier oolong teas need brewing at 80-85 degrees. More robust black teas and your standard breakfast teas appreciate boiling temperatures, and herbal teas can also be made with water straight out of your kettle.
Special tea thermometers are readily available, but any thermometer will do the trick. Alternatively, simply experiment with leaving the kettle to cool, and find out through trial and error which standing time suits your favourite tea.
2. Re-boiling the Kettle
At some time or another, we are probably all guilty of re-boiling a kettle, but if you are after a perfect cup of tea, this is a no-no. Boiling diminishes the oxygen content of water, as does leaving it to stand, or boiling it for too long. Oxygen is life and fresh water means fresher tasting tea, so you should always make the extra effort to refill your kettle. In the interests of not wasting water, it is also a good idea not to fill the kettle to the brim. Use only what you need and you'll avoid constantly having to throw away stale water.
3. Acidic or Alkaline?
A water's pH level also has animpact on the flavour it imparts to your tea. Pure water is completely neutral, with a pH of 7, whereas acidic lemon juice is 2, and alkaline bleach is about 11. The pH of your tap water ranges from 6.5 to 9.5, with harder, more mineral water tending to be higher in pH.
So what is recommended for tea? Ideally, your water should be neutral, with a pH as close to 7 as possible. Alkaline, minerally water tends to make tea taste either dull, or obscures the delicate flavours of the tea leaves. Ever so slightly acidic water is preferable to alkaline, but when it comes to pH, balance is the name of the game.
In which case, how about distilled water with a perfect pH of 7?
4. Mineral Content
Unfortunately, distilled water makes an awful cup of tea. Although it's pH is spot on, it is the opposite of a hard water, completely lacking in minerals and making a very bland brew. When considering mineral content, you want a water that contains the right combination of minerals, but is not too hard. Mineral content and tea are a bit like salt and food: you don't want to overpower your taste buds, but you want just enough to enhance the dish.
Sulphur, chlorine, and too much sodium are to be avoided, as they can ruin a good cup of tea by making it either too eggy or salty. Minerals like magnesium and calcium on the other hand, can add flavour to your cup. So where do you obtain this oxidized, neutral water with just the right amount of minerals?
5. The Next Level
The best water for making the perfect cup of tea is a bottle of balanced spring water. Failing this, and unless you live in an area with exceptional tap water, you should turn to a filter. This should be a filter that is good at removing the 'bad' stuff like chlorine from your water, while leaving the good minerals alone. Pricier than the budget water filter options, it'll be cheaper in the long run than buying bottled.
Whether you think it's worth moving on from tap water is inevitably a question of personal taste. Although water sourcing is something of a marketing gambit with breweries and distilleries, it's true that different waters taste different. The best thing you can do, and the final tip, is to experiment.
A bad tea won't be saved by good water, but a good tea might be made great when you try it with a certain water. Ultimately, because there are such a variety of different teas out there, there can only be guidelines to what water will work best in your cup. Experiment with tap water and different bottled waters. Perhaps you will find that some teas suit different waters, or that you really can’t tell the difference at all. Either way, you will be drinking lots of tea along the way, which can hardly be a bad thing.
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