Water, a Wicked Problem

I’ve been working on making good water for tea for almost two years now. A recent article on TeaDB mentioned puer tea storage as a “wicked problem” where there’s so many variables and not very good or clear feedback. Water for tea has proven to be a similarly wicked problem.

Natural vs. Artificial

What’s the difference between natural spring water and artificial purified mineralized water? Obviously, spring water comes from nature, and purified remineralized water is man-made. But what is the actual difference between these two substances? Does spring water have some magic structure, or is it just a good mineral balance?

What is in water?

There are 11 substances besides water that are in drinking water in various forms.

  1. Calcium
  2. Magnesium
  3. Sodium
  4. Potassium
  5. Chloride
  6. Sulfate
  7. Bicarbonate
  8. Silica
  9. Oxygen
  10. Carbon Dioxide
  11. Nitrate

These are 11 of the variables we can manipulate in the study of water. Where do you even start?

The Challenge of Purity

Getting purified water in a small scale is extremely difficult. My tap water comes from a dirty river, so cleaning it up has been a struggle. Distilled water bought at the store commonly comes in bottles that reek of plastic, are expensive, and pollute the environment. My local supermarket’s Reverse Osmosis machine produces water with a chemical aftertaste, likely from the monthly bleach treatment.

Distillation at home can be done with a distiller, but these are full of metal tubing and leave the water tasting quite strange. Also, distillation doesn’t remove odors in water very well, so distillers come with charcoal packets which don’t quite remove the taste. I purchased a $300 unit and despite the positive amazon reviews, it produced drinkable, but obviously metallic water.

I’ve also distilled in a closed all-glass setup, but the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are reabsorbed back into the water along with high concentrations of CO2, which makes the water taste not very nice. Basically, you can have water free of minerals, with 0 TDS (Total Dissolved Solids), but full of gross gases and non-conductive chemicals from your water supply. However smartwater gets their water, I would like that too, but it’s probably a piece of equipment worth a ton of money and bigger than my apartment.

I have a home RO (Reverse Osmosis) system, but the high pressure concentrates hydrogen sulfide into the end product, and I get eggy water. Also, the TDS is only divided by 10, so there’s some minerals left. It’s quick though and not metallic, so that’s what I’m working with.

If someone knows how to get pure water at home (or anywhere) without any metallic taste, plastic taste or dissolved grossness, that tastes like absolutely nothing, please comment on this post. It would help my research a lot, and I can share my findings with others.

Why

Probably 10% of people are getting the most out of their tea leaves, water-wise. There is so much that can go wrong with just the mineral balance of water that can ruin your tea. I also believe there are new heights in water quality and mineral content that could beat any spring water. If you disagree, please tell me why this wouldn’t be the case.

P.S. I am aware that this is a problem in coffee that has been partially solved by various companies, i.e. Third Wave Water and gcwater. These could point in the right direction, but tea is not coffee, and there’s reasons these recipes might not be optimal.

Opportuni-tea

Why do I keep drinking tea?

Sometimes there are tea sessions that just aren’t good. People don’t talk about them usually because they just aren’t notable or interesting – they are moments of failure. Usually, the explanation for these sessions is “I just wasn’t in the zone.”

During tonight’s ripe session, after a full day of water research (yes, I’m diving deep into water for tea), I was kind of bouncing back and forth between the computer and the tea table, sort of half focused. Suddenly, a song came on: Mind Mischief (The Field Remix) by Tame Impala. I have been listening to both Tame Impala and The Field for years, but didn’t discover this song until I heard it repeatedly on White2Tea’s Instagram and Snapchat stories. When I kept hearing it there, I started to wonder, “yeah, it’s a cool song, but what does Paul see in it that makes him listen again and again?

This is a pattern of thinking that I believe is central to modern tea culture. What do people see in Yang Qing Hao that makes them buy it by the tong? What do people see in old Yixing teapots that make them obsessed? What makes people buy those $130 samples of old Liu Bao from Essence of Tea? And on and on.

I closed my eyes as the song played and suddenly I was lulled into a sense of happy peaceful nostalgia (yes this reads like a bad college admissions essay but it’s the truth) where my old neighborhood flashed before my eyes, the cul-de-sac with its fresh mulch, the happy feelings of freedom so different from what I find most of the time in my young adult life.

When I opened my eyes, I saw everything with startling clarity – I mean to say that colors were more vivid, details were more pronounced. The texture of the modern zhuni teapot contrasted against the plate, the whiteness of the porcelain, the waste bowl, the chabu (tea mat), everything. I suddenly felt like I was capable of greater things, to transcend my everyday life.

When you invest time and or money into tea and or teaware, you are buying opportunity for moments like this. It’s not about always having the best tea session; that can be taken away, but nothing can take away the opportunity for an incredible, eye-opening experience.

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Beginners and Experts

In the world of tea, what do we gain with experience?

What’s the difference between an experienced tea drinker and a relative novice? I’m not an expert, but I’m closer to being an expert than I used to be. I’ve also interacted with many people I would consider to be experts, especially in certain areas. Here are a few things people seem to collect along the way.

Tea and teaware

I’ve not met any tea enthusiast who does not have a sizable collection. From people with over 100 teapots to those with entire rooms full of tea, there exist tea-fans so obsessed that they have gone beyond practicality. The more you learn about tea, and the more tea you learn about, the more temptation there is to buy it. Marketing is getting better and better, limited releases are everywhere (white2tea, pu-erh.sk, others), and the selection of teaware is unbelievable. It is very difficult to purposefully reduce the size of your tea/teaware stash over time, and the best way is a sale or swap.

The ability to relax and enjoy

In order to fully enjoy tea, one must drop everything else (aside from possibly a good book or album). I mean to say that worry and tea don’t go well together, especially not worry about tea. I see most (not all) beginners quite concerned about if they are making the tea “right.” Eventually, an expert learns to let the tea make itself. This is done partially through development of personal style and habit, and otherwise learning how to relax and make tea at the same time.

The ability to make good tea

Of the ten thousand ways to make tea, not all are good. Making good tea is about maximizing good qualities and minimizing bad ones. It is an iterative process that comes from many attempts. The more pots one has, the longer it takes to learn their nuances, and the worse the available water is, well, you gotta figure out a solution. The better the water is, the easier it is to make good tea. The point is, people usually get better with experience, or at least develop some character and style in their resulting tea.

Positive memories

Some tea sessions stick out over others for various reasons. With experience, the list of memorable tea sessions lengthens. That time I had HK Henry after a long, stressful day. The outdoor session at the pond in the woods. That six-tea marathon session. The tea masterclass where the puers just got older and older. That time the tea made me tear up (it happens to more people than you think!) That first bitter-turning-to sweet taste of raw puer. And the list goes on.

Friendship

I’ve met some people online and offline in the tea community. Some of these friendships go beyond tea, but it’s perfectly possible and okay to have deep friendships entirely about tea. There are one-sided relationships too – some people serve as the experts and others as the novices. The best way to put your own tea journey in context is to show others what you are doing and compare with what they do. This is not to say that people with more experience are necessarily correct, but that they may have reasons for what they do that you can think about as you decide what to incorporate in different ways.

Personal opinions / the (dis)respect of others

The tea culture is a generally polite place full of different opinions. Most tea-learning is confirmed by experience, and people don’t easily let go of that which they’ve learned from experience. There are usually reasons for differing opinions but they are not easy to figure out. So, there are commonly long arguments about, for example, tea storage, unglazed vs. glazed clay, vendor choices, whether a tea is good or bad, and water (this one seems especially contentious). This is what makes tea so exciting to an expert, especially one who is willing to change their mind.

Appreciation of non-tea

The more one learns to enjoy tea, the more that enjoyment spills over into non-tea elements. Whether it’s the world of alcoholic beverages, from single malts to wine to beer to eaux-de-vie, or just appreciation of nature, tea is about exploring the richness of the world to the fullest extent. Eventually, one learns to enjoy simply living and breathing.

Patience and its rewards

Patience is a virtue, and tea requires patience. Waiting for the water to boil takes patience. Waiting for the hot tea to cool a bit takes patience. Waiting for those loooong steeps at the end of a session takes patience. And all that patience is rewarded with a slow, steady adventure. It’s quite uncomfortable to wait so long doing nothing when you are a tea novice, but eventually it becomes clear that doing nothing is the gateway to a clear experience of reality, or something like that.

Learning from mistakes / Beginner’s mind

It’s easy to mess up a session, or brew a tea for a significant other that evokes the reaction of disgust, or spill tea all over your pants. It’s also incredibly common to have your most expensive tea with your favorite teaware and be completely let down by the result. This is learning, and why the best approach to tea is not as an expert, but as a beginner, open to whatever may happen in the current circumstance. The tea experts I respect the most don’t have any pretentious attitude, but simply know how to enjoy and share tea in their own way, and especially are good at listening to experts and beginners alike.

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at puerh brooklyn

P.S. I’m doing a lot of hard, time-consuming, mildly expensive work with water, and plan to share it with the world around March 2020. Sorry for the wait, but distilling water takes many hours, and my glass lab equipment is in customs. Thanks for reading!

Taste as Meditation

A lot of people make a separation between those who “nerd out” about tea and those who are spiritually connected to the tea. The zen people say “don’t think about the taste of the tea just make it and drink it” and the tea nerds say “don’t worry about stories about zen monks and health benefits just make it and drink it.” The “just make it and drink it” is common to both approaches, of course.

For a very long time, I have been just making and drinking my tea, with a sort of soft focus and presence: I pay attention and relax. But recently, I have been consciously analyzing my tea as I drink it, like some kind of sommelier searching for flavor notes. Now why would I do such a thing?

The level of focus required in order to determine what kinds of flavors are present in the tea is surprisingly deep. The fact that taste is subjective doesn’t change the fact that the tastes are there waiting to be uncovered. Perhaps they don’t need to be labeled, especially because I can’t tell my longans from my gardenias, but at least you can group your raw tea-drinking sensation into different dimensions of flavor. For example, low notes vs high notes: you can think “this taste, although I haven’t a clue what it resembles, is low.” Also, does it last a long time? When does it arrive, and when does it leave? Do the successions of notes have a rhythm?

Yun

Yun is a term that, according to chinese tea lexicon Babelcarp, means “literally Rhyme, but in a tea context, Aftertaste, or more generally, the elusive essence of experiencing a given tea.” It’s used as Yan Yun when it refers to a Wuyi rock oolong’s “rocky” taste/aftertaste. Now why would it be called rhyme?

My personal view on Yun is that it occurs when the succession of flavors has a rhythm. In poetry, a rhyme only happens with a rhyme scheme, which is essentially rhythmic:

I drank my tea alone today

It seemed to me sublime

For when I focused deep within,

I found a splendid rhyme.

The rhyming words go in a specific place rhythmically: if they were anywhere else in the poem, it would feel different, and probably not rhyme at all.

I sipped a tea with a friend

She hated it because

It didn’t have a rhyme at all,

It wasn’t a very good time.

See, that’s awkward and bad. So, when a tea has Yun, or rhyme, it is because the interplay of flavors over time is rhythmically structured. By focusing and bringing these flavors to consciousness in real time, you can experience the essence of the tea as if it were a poem and a song. This strikes a perfect balance between the meditative and the enthusiast approaches to tea, which usually oppose each other. I used to look for qi more than yun, but perhaps they are two sides of the same thing!