Some variation on making a good cup of tea 

Reading is admittedly a mighty poor substitute for personal instruction, but all tea lovers are eager to learn how to make the most of their pleasure and here are some starting points.  Part of tea’s appeal is that it encourages us to assimilate foreign ways.  A Japanese wrote in 1829, “Ingen was the first to prepare sencha in a teapot set atop a brazier.”  Ingen, whoever he may have been, was making tea in the latest, newfangled fashion learned from China.  All Japanese ever since have learned to do likewise, so that their old-fashioned whipped tea has been relegated to ceremonial use in chanoyu (“hot water for tea,” the Japanese tea ceremony).  The story of tea is, as much as anything else, the history of a habit, a universal habit by now, but one universally different from one time and culture to the next.

How to make tea – how, indeed?  English, Frisian, Chinese or Kashmiri?  With a samovar, a bamboo whisk, a kung-fu pot, a mug?  You begin to see the dimensions here.  One thing all these ways of making tea have in common is that each of them can be reduced to rules.  That’s the vocational training aspect.  But information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not understanding – that is the fruit of time and education.  But I digress, when I should begin giving directions.

Directions for tea-making exemplify the difference between vocational training and education.  George Orwell devoted one of his better essays to the subject, with precise directions and a wealth of detailed admonishments as codicil, the whole expressing a sound philosophy.  “A Nice Cup of Tea” as a literary accomplishment is greater than the catechism Orwell gives for the strong tea he relished, a little desperately, I feel, but relished heartily.  But perhaps that’s it – like Mr. Orwell, you have to put your heart into making tea if following the directions is to amount to much that matters to you.  Tea-making is a ritual that, like the drink itself, warms the heart somehow.

Tea and Water

Tea is water and leaves, but chiefly the former and therefore the water used is of paramount importance.  All water is not created equal.  For making tea some water is less than ideal, and some dreadful.  Hard, chlorinated water from the tap harms the flavor of tea.  It’s no great harm if it’s no great tea, perhaps, but the better the tea, the more it deserves springwater, as tea lovers from the time of Lu Yu himself have rightly claimed.  Chlorine in any amount is unacceptable and the higher the oxygen content the better, as we know from admonitions never to over-boil water to be used for tea.  Also important is the ideal pH.  This should be just below or near 7, which is on the low alkaline side, if that means anything to you.  Please do not be intimidated by this and additional dollops of science which follow.

Another major consideration in the ideal water for tea is its mineral content.  Total Dissolved Solids, meaning mineral content, is abbreviated TDS, I learned from Mr. David Beeman of the Water System Group (currently a consultant for Global Customized Water).  Mr. Beeman has demonstrated how radically TDS affects the way water infuses, inhibits or distorts tea’s flavor, color and aroma.  The ideal TDS is between 10 and 30 parts per million or PPM.  TDS above 30 PPM interferes with tea’s taste, yet tap water throughout the U.S. ranges from 15 upwards to 1,000 PPM with an average around 400.  Obviously few public water supplies even approach the ideal, and this fact explains why people in the West – Colorado, Arizona, etc. – and many another place consider all talk of taste and aroma in tea the figment of an overexcited imagination.  This brings us to a question.

Choosing the best water for tea.

How does one approximate the ultimate tea water, or even a pretty good one?  For special teas, you can read the label of bottle waters until you find one with a pH of 7 and TDS of 30 PPM or below – and you should.  The tea will repay your thoughtfulness manyfold.  In certain parts of the country bottled springwater may be the only way to enjoy tea of any kind – not to mention coffee and so forth.  

You should use an ideal water from time to time in any case just to experience how wonderful the true fragrance and taste of the teas you enjoy can be.  Cafes, teahouses and restaurants can consult somebody like Mr. Beeman for solutions.  But most of us can at least vastly improve the fragrance and taste of our favorite daily beverages by the use of a simple Brita or Pur filter, which eliminates chlorine (intolerable in any amount) and diminishes greatly the water’s TDS content.

This article has been reformatted to update it from the original publiation date, August 11, 2009

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