Unlike many Chinese teas that can generally withstand harsher conditions, Japanese teas are well known for their fine qualities. Using water that is too hot may ruin the entire brew. Many people don't take into account how the quality of the water itself can also harshen the final taste of Japanese tea.
Have you ever come across this problem? You are on vacation in Japan at a tea house where you are sampling delicious Japanese teas — like gyokuro and sencha. The brews are just right. You feel very slight bitterness, a pleasant sweetness on the palate, and that iconic saltiness of a tea with rich umami. You purchase 100 grams of the gyokuro you just enjoyed and take it back home with excitement. Let's say you are living in California. You open up the gyokuro and follow the instructions that the tea shop owner noted down precisely — 1 gram of tea leaves for every 30 ml water, the water temperature of precisely 60 ℃, brewed for 2 minutes, then decanted into a cup.
Finally, you take a sip… Hmm. The tea is not bad. However, it lacks something. Perhaps the taste is more bland than usual? Is the aroma lacking? What could have gone wrong after following the tea brewing instructions so carefully?
What tea consumers rarely counter in is the quality of the water they are using. Or, if it is considered, it will probably be the last factor.
Water In Japan
Water throughout Japan is soft. It contains less than 100 mg hardness for every 1 liter. Hardness is one of the most important factors when it comes to water taste. Generally, hard water has a firm feeling. If you are used to soft water, hard water can be more unpleasant.
Hardness level indicates the concentration of minerals, like calcium and magnesium, dissolved in water.
Whereas most water in Japan (including tap, bottled, and spring water) is soft, the water in Europe and North America is generally hard.
The quality of water is not only essential when it comes to Japanese teas, but it is also crucial for the preparation of some famous Japanese dishes. Many Japanese cooks residing abroad are tasked by the challenge to make certain iconic dishes taste as good as they would in Japan. While buying bottled soft water can be sufficient for tea, it becomes much more challenging to cook large quantities of food.
Some dishes which require soft water are dashi (Japanese stock commonly used for miso soup), soba noodles, and tofu. Japanese dishes are known for having very delicate flavors, without many spices. Soft water helps us distinguish and savor all these subtle flavors, while hard water would shadow them.
When it comes to Japanese green teas, soft water is crucial for us to taste the many layers of exquisite flavors of the tea leaves. Soft water also helps draw out the bitterness and astringency found in tea. That way, our palette can entirely focus on the gentle umami.
Hard water is not suitable for Japanese green tea because it does not sufficiently bring out the tea's flavor.
How Can I Get Soft Water In The West?
The hardness of the water in large depends on where you live. East coast United States has water softer than other parts of the states. However, it still might be too harsh for Japanese teas.
Pay attention to the mineral level of water. Purchasing water with fewer minerals will mean that it is softer.
The following USA and Canadian water brands are known for their excellent quality soft water:
- Alaskan Glacier Gold Water (United States)
- Crystal Geyser (United States)
- Rocky Mountain (United States)
- Aquator (Canada)
- Bourassa Canadian (Canada)
The picture above shows water hardness levels throughout the USA.
Using Tap Water For Tea Brewing
If you live in an area where the tap water is rather hard, you can use a salt-based water softener that turns water from hard to soft through the process called "ion exchange". This process removes high concentrations of magnesium and calcium by substituting the hardness minerals (calcium and magnesium) with sodium chloride (salt).
Our research shows that ion-exchange softeners prove, by far, to be the most effective home softener. Other devices are usually much less effective if not scams.
If you live in an area where the tap water is drinkable and relatively soft, for example, East Coast USA, you can brew Japanese teas with it. However, one problem that commonly arises is the chlorine taste and smell of tap water. Some tap water has a higher chlorine content to make it clean and drinkable. However, the scent can be strong and off-putting when preparing delicious, delicate tea. To solve this problem, we recommend boiling the water for over 2 minutes, then leaving it to cool off until it reaches the desired temperature.
Overall, while tea utensils and proper brewing techniques are essential for a quality cup of Japanese tea, it is crucial not to forget about water properties and grade. It could be the make or break of your tea experience.