Water trials: “Untitled” from Arby
Buried deep in the niche that is the English language Puerh scene is the positively subterranean scene of constructed water. The first time I encountered this was with Lew Perin’s DIY mineral water webpage. In recent years, the company Third Wave Water has commercialized mineral additive packets for “optimizing” coffee and tea — I have tried the “classic profile” and found it was somewhat better than my filtered tap water for drip coffee, but somewhat worse for tea in general. I’ve learned a lot about water for tea from Max at Tea Secrets, who seems to have done the deepest dive into water-tea interaction and the chemical constituents of brewing water. Recently I was sent a water sample from Arby at the aspirationally-titled Empirical Tea and the following is my initial revew of his “Untitled”.
But before we get wet, a few words about my opinions on water for tea. The usual recommendation for puerh tea is:
- 60-80 ppm total dissolved solids
- Neutral (7) pH
This is just a baseline recommendation which usually gives good results. Of course, which minerals make up that 60-80ppm can make a significant difference to the behaviour of tea, but more importantly, it’s a lot easier (and environmentally friendlier) to learn how to adjust your brewing rather than to adjust your water. After all, you have to adjust your brewing anyway, to accommodate different types of teas, mood, etc. Since Toronto tap water is quite good and a simple filtration system is economical, I prefer to stick to my Toronto filtered tap, which has higher than recommended tds, at around 120-200 nowadays, depending on the season. The effect of the higher mineral content is that it extracts more, giving a thicker texture, typically more colour and flavour, as well as more bitterness and astringency — for the same steep time, that is.
What’s important, in my opinion, is to have a consistent and economical source of good-tasting clean water, and then to learn how to use it with the different teas in your collection. Realistically, it takes a long time, on the order of months, to really learn a water, and while it can be rewarding to experiment with water variations, a short-term test with a couple of teas gives only a shallow impression of what the water is really like. The best reason, in my opinion, to use a standardized bottled water, is for a reference tasting, using the same conditions to compare with another taster. For everyday drinking, it’s more important to know your water than it is to have “perfect” water.
On that note, something which seems self-evident, at least to me, is that there is no such thing as “ideal” or “optimized” water for tea, or even for a specific tea. I have had great sessions with waters of many different types, from tds as low as 40 to as high as 250. On the other hand, I have never enjoyed teas brewed with distilled or Reverse-Osmosis water, nor with water so hard that it precipitates in the cup.
- 2013 Biyun Hao Mahei, Taiwan natural dry storage, 4g/60ml identical gaiwans
The constructed water has a clean taste, and seems not quite as thick as my filtered tap water, but very close. It also has a very mild astringency in the finish.
There was almost no difference in colour between the two waters across all three of the teas.
With Untitled, this tea had slightly more aroma on the liquor and on the empty cup. Good thick texture and mouthfeel, and the tartness comes through. Gradual buildup of mouthfeel and astringency, good salivation, very nice emergence of juicy flavours. Astringency is present but melts quickly. This water gave more juiciness on the sides of the mouth. In the later steeps it is noticeably thinner and more astringent.
With Toronto filtered tap, the water gave a thicker liquor from the start, and it extracted more bitter aspects and astringency. More mouthfeel and a stronger “mouthpull”. Test steep is significantly more astringent, leathery and takes longer for tannins to melt. In the later steeps, the taste was more intense with the tap water, and the mouthfeel thicker. Strangely less bitter in the later steeps than with Untitled.
2003 Chenyuan Hao Tongqing Hao reproduction, Taiwan natural dry storage, 3.9g/identical 60ml gaiwans
Very similar in aroma, indistinguishable even on the empty cup.
Untitled was again quite juicy and a bit sweeter, especially in the arrival. in Mid-steeps it had more liquor aroma, resinous, astringent development and melting to a clean finish.
With my filtered tap, there is a more herbal malty arrival, clearly more astringent and bitter, and also thicker and in mid-steeps more juicy than the Untitled. More plumminess and astringency, and with this tea there was a surface film, like oil spot, which could be some kind of precipitation.
3. 1997 MTF 7542, Hong Kong traditional storage, 4g/identical 60ml gaiwans
Untitled gave a slightly darker brew from the HK storage tea, for some reason, but the difference between the brews was very difficult to detect. I would say that Untitled gave a very slightly sweeter brew whereas my filtered tap water gave a punchier tea, but I would have difficulty distinguishing the two.
It’s clear that Toronto filtered tap must have higher mineral content than Untitled, leading to a stronger extraction rate. I tended to prefer the early steeps with Untitled on the younger tea as they were a bit sweeter, but despite the surface film I quite preferred my water with the 2003 Chenyuan Hao. For the very quick-extracting HK Trad, I had difficulty picking a favourite, I liked both quite a lot. Untitled seems to perform very well with Puerh tea, at least to my taste, and most importantly I could detect no off notes or harshness with the recipe. Thanks again to Arby for sending this sample.