Water: The Mother of Tea
Water is Alive
One way to expand your knowledge about tea is to observe the different qualities of water from a variety of sources. First, we look to the past and consider ancient knowledge from tea sages throughout time.
Lu Yu, the Tea Sage
At the age of three, Lu Yu was found by a Buddhist monk wandering alone. The monk brought Yu back to his temple near West Lake. Not interested in a monk’s life, Yu left the temple at the age of 12 to seek his own life. Yu dedicated the rest of his life mastering the art of tea farming, nurturing, crafting, and evaluating (tasting). Yu shared his knowledge, alongside the collective wisdom of the time, in Book of Tea/Tea Classics (pinyin; mandarin). Yu's book is particularly remarkable as it was the first book dedicated solely to tea. In this chapter, Lu Yu introduced and analyzed different “types” of water for tea making, which is still being used as a guide for teamaking today.
Di Shui: Water from the Earth
“When it comes to water, water from the Mountain is the top, water from the Creek or River is the middle, water from the well is bottom.” (“其水，用山水上，江水中，井水下。“) Yu considered water from the top of the Mountain to be the best for tea as it was least impacted by human activity.
Tian Shui: Water Without Roots
Tian Shui, water cycled through nature, never having touched the earth, was another option in Yu's time. Also known as water without roots, the water from snow, rain, hail, or dew Yu favored Tian Shui over Di Shui because of it's softer, less mineral quality. During that time, people would often collect rain and snow in a pumpkin to later make tea with.
Choosing a water
One may find the "best" water to make tea with in the same region where the tea itself grows. If you visit Wuyishan, do collect some spring water from a Mountain within reserves to make your cliff tea.
The next "best" water comes from Tian Shui. If you're fortunate enough to live in an area free of airborne pollution, you may collect some rain water or snow in a ceramic container.
If you live in a city or in an area where air pollution makes Tian Shui unusable, qualities to consider when sourcing are:
- Alive (huó; 活). Running, full of energy. Aliveness is the most important aspect of. Water that's alive is free of odor.
- Clear (清). Fresh and clear. Clearness comes the second. No dust or residuals should be present.
- Light (Qīng; 轻). Lightness shows particulate/dissolved solid density.
- Sweet (Gān; 甘). Naturally sweet.
- Cold（Liè; 冽). The temperature should be low. Cold or freezing is better. Water from snow, for example.
There are many types of bottled water available: Spring, natural spring, reverse-osmosis, Mountain spring, mineral, alkaline, distilled, volcanic, glacial, purified, electrolyte-infused, pH balanced — the list goes on and on. Some terms refer to the source, while others refer to the method of filtration.
For the purposes of making tea, we can categorize these kinds of water on a qualitative spectrum of "hard" and "soft". We define hard or soft based on the concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water. TDS represents the total concentration of dissolved solids in water (parts per million, per milliliter or PPM/ML). Harder water will have a higher TDS concentration and softer will have a lower TDS concentration. Generally speaking, hard water's TDS measures above 500 ppm, whereas soft water is below 100 ppm. The rule of thumb is, the lower TDS the better suited it is for making tea with.
"Hard" water typically contains more dissolved calcium, magnesium, salts, and other mineral compounds, whereas "soft" water has less, or none. Mineral waters are typically harder, and less suited for making tea. Spring water is softer, and more suited to tea making.
As with tea, the best advice is to explore — at home, in nature, wherever you go. Bring water back, test it, boil it, and taste it. To develop an objective understanding of different sources of water, always use the same kind of tea to “taste test” different waters.