There is a question exactly as old as tea itself that has been (especially now) subjected to intensive debate among tea drinkers and enthusiasts. That question, and also the subject of today’s article, is whether water quality matters to the tea drinking experience, and whether bottled water should be used for brewing tea. In short, the answer is, respectively, yes and no – but only sometimes.
For thousands of years, water quality did not matter nearly as much as water cleanliness for tea drinkers. People used whatever water they had on hand, which for the vast majority of tea’s history was the nearest stream or spring. When water was needed, people would go to the nearest source of freshwater and find a clean spot to fill their container. For most, this was the end of the thought to water in the tea making process. The water would be heated and tea would be steeped and enjoyed. There are some mentions of water qualities in the Cha Jing by the Ancient Chinese tea master Lu Yu, that involved storing water with bamboo charcoal to improve its taste, but the vast majority of discussion on water taste and quality has arisen only in the past couple of decades.
Part of the reason for this relatively new interest in water comes in part from the increasing impact of globalization on the economy and our everyday lives. For the vast majority of human history, humans drank only what water was closest to them. Today, however, a trip to the local supermarket gives us access to bottled waters from all over the world for rarely more than $5. The result of this recent boom in water diversity has been wide-ranging experimentation among tea drinkers. Tea drinkers all over the world (most especially in the West) have been using different bottled waters to brew their tea in order to understand the impact water has on a tea’s flavour. The experiment is well worth undertaking because there is certainly an important connection between water and taste. While that may be the case, snobbery and pretentiousness have over-emphasized the benefits of pre-bottled water and have even completely ignored some of the downsides.
Before we go further, we need to address the chief alternative to bottled water, which is tap water. Perfectionists and quibblers today have not been satisfied by taking water from the source nearest them, and have taken it upon themselves to complicate their water sources. Tap water has been under scrutiny as of late, with high profile events like the water supply issue in Flint, Michigan changing people’s drinking habits. Because of the attention Flint received, sales of bottled water have increased, despite wide-reaching concerns for environmental responsibility and harmful chemicals like BPA. While situations like that in Flint, Michigan are concerning, it has been nearly as frightening how quickly people have forgotten the extent to which we in North America (and the developed world generally) have been blessed with the safest water in the world. And the best part? To access this safe water, all we have to to do is turn the faucet.
In most areas in the developed world, tap water quality is regularly monitored, and reports on it made public every couple of years. Luckily, the only real concern we have when it comes to our tap water is whether it is “hard” or “soft.” The chief difference is that hard water has more dissolved minerals, while soft has fewer. Most people’s homes in the West will have water that is closer to the hard water rather than at the two extremes, but it is important to note that the hardness of water has more to do with taste, and limescale buildup in plumbing and appliances. Ever notice a white scale in your kettle? The speed of the buildup of that scale may tell you something about the hardness of the water you use. When it comes to tea, water hardness will have an effect on flavour, but not enough of one in most cases to ruin a tea or make a bad tea taste like a good tea. Water hardness will altar a tea in some ways, but will not make or break it. For this reason, the debates on bottled water and water quality in tea brewing are widely overstated.
Advocates of using bottled water for tea brewing claim that tap water doesn’t bring out the best of a tea, which tends to go against thousands of years of knowledge, and the literature of the Ancient tea masters. Far more important than using the “right” water, is using high-quality tea that has been responsibly grown. At Herbal Republic, we tell our customers that water quality only matters so much as that it does not taste terrible, and that it is (above all else) safe to drink. When those criteria are met, the benefits that using bottled water will have on the tea experience will be minimal, if detectable at all.
On top of that, the downsides of using bottled water may actually be significant. The plastic used for packaging bottled water products have long been known to contain BPA, a chemical known to cause numerous health problems including cancer. Some have indicated that the levels found in the plastic bottles have not posed significant health risks, but when considering that bottled water doesn’t have to be consumed at all, the risk-reward balance doesn’t add up.
In June of 2017, the Guardian published an article stating, “More than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300bn a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3bn, according to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report.” The article is aptly named, “A Million Bottles a Minute: ‘World’s Plastic Binge as Dangerous as Climate Change.’” These figures would mean relatively nothing if it were not first considered that the plastic waste produced by bottled water consumption does indeed have to go somewhere. In the best case scenario, It ends up in a landfill and some clever developer builds a golf course on top of it, however, this is rarely the case. Most water bottles end up on the sides of roads and in waterways, posing a detrimental hazard to wildlife and our ecosystems. The risk is simply not worth a nonexistent reward.
Part of our mission at Herbal Republic (besides our longstanding commitment to conservationism environmental responsibility), is to educate people on how to get the most out of their tea. The debate on bottled water has only led to stress and worry around tea brewing, an activity which should be all but stressful. People have begun to think they would be wasting their best tea if they brewed it with anything but spring water from a bottle, but nothing could be further from the truth. We want to tell our customers that there is no better water to use for tea brewing than the water that comes directly out of your tap. For your health, for the planet, and for your pocketbook (those pennies add up), tap water is the best option for your tea.