Replicating Water from the Xi River and Making Tea With It

I’ve been wanting to try Chinese tea with Chinese water for a long time, because it would be so cool, but only recently did I stumble upon some good data that I could use to replicate Chinese water at home. This water is a replica of the Xi River in winter (seasonal variation in natural water is significant, as TDS changes around 50% from winter to summer.) The main branch of the Xi River is located west of Guangzhou, but the basin of the river extends all the way to Kunming, in Yunnan. This water is rather difficult to make, and can not be made without a Sodastream. I used a new method to get silica into the water, and decided to test the new method by adding double the silica that was in the data. I don’t think it should make too much of a difference, but I wanted to note it here. Silica is not an ion, so it doesn’t have as significant an effect on extraction, only on texture (as far as I know now!)

After a lot of work over two weeks, here it is.

2750 ml

The water was distilled from my local tap water, which recently tested over the safe limit for PFAs, a pollutant that can cause health problems. I get a kick out of removing pollution from water by purifying it – distilling water removes PFAs entirely, and I distilled this water three times. Two of these distillations were in glass laboratory equipment dedicated to water. This resulted in my base water being some of the cleanest and purest I’ve managed to create, with the downside being 10 hours of distillation time to get only 2750 ml. I’m sure I can cut that time down in the future. I’m just really happy I can get pure tasting water at all, as it was a big struggle just a year ago. The distilled can go side by side with lofoten and hold its own! It’s not perfect by any means, but it is around the same level as very good natural waters bottled in glass.

Once I had this base water, I had to add the minerals to it. It wasn’t too difficult really, and took around an hour and a half to get everything measured and added properly. I’ve shared the water with friends and family and they’ve remarked that it tastes like water, nothing is wrong with it, and it’s rather dry (not drying, but referring to not too sweet). I suppose that is a success as water is concerned, though I’d love to make water that makes you go “wow!” I personally find the water quite voluminous in a nice way, but we will get to that later. The big curiosity is, does using (replicated) Chinese water “work” with tea grown near it? Does it express the taste as nature intended? Let’s find out.

Aimed for 34 ppm silica, tested at 30. Quite close!
Calcium43
Magnesium8
Sodium7
Potassium3
Bicarbonate148
Sulfate30
Chloride5
Silica34
Ions
Hardness139 mg/L as CaCO3
Alkalinity121 mg/L as CaCO3
Hardness to Alkalinity Ratio1.15
TDS (calculated, will not measure nearly this high due to ion conductivities)243 ppm
Electrical Conductivity at 25ºC (calculated, will not measure this high due to ion behavior)350 μS/cm
pH (measured)8
Electrical Conductivity at 25ºC (measured)303 μS/cm
Stats

Testing the Water with Tea: White2Tea 2016 The Treachery of Storytelling Pt. 2

6.3g/100ml

I chose Treachery because it’s a tea that demands good water, all about power and subtlety, in an interesting stage of aging, just beginning to darken in leaf color. It demands a water that can bring out both the youthful and aging side of the tea. It also has an energy that I’d like to experience in a comfortable way throughout the session. Aside from those considerations, I’m open to any outcome here, as it would be interesting to see how water that may be similar in mineral profile to what the tea “drank” in order to grow will interact with the tea and the experience of it. I’m not sure that tea drinkers even use tap water in China, depending on the area, or if the tap water is not altered in mineral content from the river water, but it’s worth a try for curiosity’s sake.

The water hits the teapot, sending an immediate aroma of flowers and dried fruit upward. The rinse pours a pale straw yellow. Empty pitcher smells of sweets. The leaf in the pot is intensely fragrant, like sunscreen and leather.

After the first steep is poured, immediately scale is forming in the kettle. This water is rather heavy, so I expected this to happen. It is kind of strange how rapidly this occurs, but I think natural water of this heaviness would do the same thing.

The taste of the first steep – bitter. Watery. Smooth. Many subtleties immediately – I’m delighted! Oiliness focused on the front of the tongue, evaporating into many tiny flowers and fruit essences. This is the most clear this tea has ever tasted for me. A brilliant oily soapiness blooming into a rose flower aftertaste. ECA is mild.

Second steep – the mouthfeel is so very soft, the silica is making a huge difference. The tea sort of inflates in the mouth. Juicy. Qi hits here. Downward qi, clarifying. The wateriness persists, refreshing. Extremely smooth, a lot of rear activity, experience of drinking moving from front to back to front. Leather and tobacco fairly obvious here, but the body and watery quality make this steep seem almost crystalline.

The Pyrex pitcher has never been more relevant

Speaking of crystals, unfortunately there’s a colossal amount of scale forming unlike any I’ve ever seen, forming crystalline globs on the bottom of the kettle. Luckily they’re not actually stuck together, just powdery scale collected in various spots on the bottom of the kettle. I’m sure this is changing the mineral content quite a bit, removing calcium carbonate from the water. This scale looks different than usual, so it could be silica in the scale too.

Lots of scale.

Third steep was similar to second.

Fourth steep – great bubbles on the surface of the tea, meaning we haven’t lost too much bicarbonate to scaling. Beginning to be a more full-mouth-all-at-once-experience. Darker, deeper, tannins showing up. Something that reminds me of citrus, like deep tangerine, or bitter orange juice. Smoother than any water I’ve ever made by far. 30 ppm silica is a big difference. The water holds together nicely. Huge focused relaxed energy. In tune. Heating in back. Not very sweet, like a very dry orange wine (white wine with the skins kept on) or a wild ale. Big pollen huigan!!

Seriously.

Fifth – Under-lid aroma is flowery, in a settled way, not like a brand-new tea would be, balmy. The scale is not showing up in the cup at all, though, which is nice. I’m very happy right now, for many reasons – the base water is good, the tea is good, the mineral composition is natural, the result is somewhere in the liminal space between natural and… well, not artificial… what is this? I guess this water is a secret, nobody has ever tried it, let alone with tea, except maybe people in the Xijiang Basin have this running in their house all the time. That’s a secret from me, I’ve sort of taken this water out of context and placed it in a new context that reflects a reality that I’ve probably made up. Not the first time this has happened in tea culture. Please contact me if you know if this water is used by many people. I believe it is similar to Guangzhou tap water, which is taken from six tributaries of the Pearl river, and the Xi is one of the main tributaries. I’m aware of water pollution in china too, so if everyone uses bottled water, or if it’s a mix, I appreciate the info. Back to the session – I’m getting a woody-stemminess, and awesome petroleum power. The tea isn’t heavy though, it still floats and has structure.

Sixth – What is this water? I mean, when you have a beyond burger, it’s kind of natural, but it’s fairly obvious you’re having something that’s been built from something else. But with this, I distilled water, which is what nature does with clouds and rain. Then I added minerals, which is what happens when water flows over rocks. There are some things missing, like the volatile scents of rocks, which are a real thing, such as the many volatile compounds that cause the petrichor effect after it rains. But chemically, it’s nearly identical to natural water at this point. It’s more like a photograph, or a sculpture of nature.

artificial (adj.)
late 14c., “not natural or spontaneous,” from Old French artificial, from Latin artificialis “of or belonging to art,” from artificium “a work of art; skill; theory, system,” from artifex (genitive artificis) “craftsman, artist, master of an art” (music, acting, sculpting, etc.), from stem of ars “art” (see art (n.)) + -fex “maker,” from facere “to do, make” (from PIE root *dhe- “to set, put”).

Earliest use in English is in the phrase artificial day “part of the day from sunrise to sunset” (as opposed to the natural day of 24 hours). Meaning “made by man, contrived by human skill and labor” is from early 15c. The word was applied from 16c. to anything made in imitation of, or as a substitute for, what is natural, whether real (light, tears) or not (teeth, flowers). Meaning “fictitious, assumed, not genuine” is from 1640s; that of “full of affectation, insincere” is from 1590s. Artificial insemination dates from 1894. Artificial intelligence “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines” was coined in 1956.

Sixth (cont.) – present. Roots, like fennel, parsnip. Dry huigan, dry mouthcoat, but not drying. Dry in taste in every aspect. Rather elegantly dry. The idea of sweetness is still there though, thank goodness.

Seventh – a 45 second steep, lighter than expected, too short of a steep. Taste is fairly mild here. I’m surprised at the slow extraction. Still has dried raspberry, creamy, qi. While the next steep is happening, let me talk about the chemistry of this water. High in bicarbonate, calcium and sulfate, higher potassium than normal, medium-low sodium. Low in magnesium. The potassium and sulfate contribute to the dry flavor and depth. The low magnesium and high calcium create a smooth and settled profile, and may cause the slower extraction.

Eighth – 2 minutes, good color, more present. Still quite watery in a way, but I’ve heard of this tea being like this. It’s watery but not underextracted. There’s plenty to chew on here. Oats and grains, definitely. I love the purity of the base water, free from plastic. My body is refreshed, back sweating, butter and bubblegum aftertaste. The tea is always shifting, elusive. Foresty taste, dense deep mouthcoat.

Ninth – Ripe peach. Only noticed this obvious note now, the florals were so distracting earlier! Getting more and more ethereal, focused on aftertaste, so vivid. There’s something natural and microbiological about the tea, as if some sort of fermentation is happening in the cup, like wine. It’s not close to sour or anything, but complex and active, alive.

Tenth – I am out of water in the kettle, let’s see if a fresh boil will revitalize it. A smell in the glass water container confirms that this water is indeed odorless, which is great. Tenth steep, still from the first boil, same boil as the last nine steeps, is a bit flat, but still nice. Suntan lotion, banana, bubblegum, irises, corn. Mouth is happy, not dried out at all. Pleasantly coated in tannins.

Eleven – fresh boil, 3 minute steep. Actually not enormously different. A bit more vitality and strength. This session overall is very relaxed, yet bitter, watery, yet potent. I love a good paradox in a cup! Sessions with other waters have been sort of similar, but not as bitter. It’s much less bitter than, say, the Truth Serum water recipe would make this tea. Grape skins, red and white.

Twelve – Final steep, ten minutes. Still so smooth, mild, chewy. Tobacco, simmered root vegetables, oils, coconut. Such an endlessly interesting profile and cohesive texture.

Session rating – 8.8/10

Water rating for this tea – 8.5/10

Reviewing the Water Itself

Drink up!

55ºF. Odorless, it hits the mouth, very thick and full for water. Holds together well. Mildly sweet, can taste the air in the water. It really is smooth and dry in the same way that the tea made with it is. Aftertaste is pure enough, could be more pure. Extremely slight CO2, not as much as Saratoga. The sulfate expresses itself with a thickness and presence. Really smooth, not particularly crisp, heavy but empty. Satisfying water with a sort of plain, ordinary and natural character. Could be more thirst-quenching.

Water rating – 8.1/10

What did I learn?

First, Xi River is really heavy. Unless there’s something I don’t know about how to get scale to stay in water and not precipitate out, it’s just a water that scales aggressively. I feel like the time investment that it took to make this water was worth it in the same way that the money investment for Treachery is worth it. I learned that silica makes a positive difference. I also learned that I can make good base water now, albeit with great effort. I got to know Treachery more, the qi was extremely comfortable and beneficial. This is good tea water in my book. I thought it could be a bit more present, but there was a sort of authenticity to what I was replicating here, or at least my idea of it, having never tried it. It tasted ordinary yet elegant, and seemed to express the tea in a beautiful, rather emotional way. I want to improve my process and make more water – I have plenty to replicate and even more water to create and design. I really enjoyed this session and process – it is like reverse-engineering nature.

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