The Art of Water Quality for Brewing Tea

Tea is more than just a beverage; it is steeped in history and culture. Its effects on the subconscious are profound, triggering emotions and memories that transport us to different times and places. But, what is it about the simple act of mixing water and leaves that elicits such powerful responses? To fully appreciate tea’s poetry and chemistry, we must explore the importance of water in literature, poetry, and religion. Water is not only a vital metaphor but also symbolizes life itself, and understanding its significance in different cultures and religions can help us gain a better understanding of our emotional response to tea. In this article, we examine the metaphorical importance of water in Hinduism, ancient Chinese mythology, and Buddhist philosophy and how this relates to our enjoyment of tea.

Water: Tea’s poet

Tea is but the mixing of water with leaves. However, reducing tea to such basic and primitive elements fails to capture the mystery and poetry that is the keystone to tea’s history and culture. Mention the word tea and open a psychological door that transports you to rainy days, long meandering conversations, family picnics, romantic dinners, or nights with a book and a fire. Tea triggers such emotions if you come from a country imbued with a strong tea culture or if you come from the United States—a country in which the word tea is rarely found qualifying the word culture. But, how can the mixing of water and leaves unleash such strong memories and emotions? Surely there must be more to tea than a quick steeping of a leaf with warm water.

To help understand tea’s effect on the subconscious and to gain greater insight into how we react to tea, it might be helpful to focus on the historical significance of water in literature, poetry, and religion. Whereas the tea leaf and its processing explains much of the symbolism related to the art and craft of tea, water is the psychological trigger from which we derive much of our emotional reactions to tea. It is for this reason that if we remind ourselves of the importance of water as a symbol in the great arts, we may obtain a better understanding of water’s effect on our relationship to tea and how this relationship affects our enjoyment of tea.

Water as metaphor

Water is a ubiquitous and powerful metaphor in various traditions and myths. Across different religions, water is not only a vital metaphor but also symbolizes life itself. Thus, it holds a significant metaphorical role in our worldviews and probably brings emotional content into our subconscious. To illustrate the belief that water, and by extension tea, occupies a privileged place in our subconscious, we can look at some of the world’s major religions. Such an elementary exploration provides an entry point for comprehending the metaphorical importance of water to tea and our emotional response to it. Or, borrowing a metaphor from Greek mythology, examining some of the world’s religious traditions may let us have a taste from the Mnemosyne spring without taking a sip from the Lethe spring.

Water as creator of the world

Water is a fundamental element in Hinduism. The term Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, which means “river.” According to the Rig Veda, the oldest text in the Sanatana Dharma traditions, our universe was created by water from the heavenly rivers. The text narrates that prior to the creation of our world, an evil demon named Vritra blocked the heavenly rivers and stopped the water from flowing. This led to a sterile, infertile, and empty earth. Indra, the king of gods, fought and killed Vritra to release the water from heaven. Indra’s victory unblocked the rivers, allowing the water to flow and create the world. Viewing water through the lens of the Rig Veda suggests that it is more than just a liquid that keeps us hydrated. It is a symbol that played a crucial role in the creation of our world.

Water as gift of life

The mythology of ancient China teaches us that in the beginning, the world was nothing but water, which was controlled by a mythical dragon. According to Chinese belief, they are the descendants of this dragon. It was only after the water transformed into vapor that the world was created. Therefore, water was not only considered the cause of life but also a gift from the creator – a gift of continued life.

Water as spiritual guide

In Buddhist philosophy, water is no longer solely viewed as the giver of life, but also as a representation of the journey towards spiritual awakening. The Buddhist concept of the “middle way,” or the path to enlightenment, is often symbolized by a river. This metaphor highlights the importance of navigating one’s life between excess and deficiency, akin to the way water flows between the banks of a river. This perspective on water elevates its significance beyond that of a simple beverage and transforms it into a spiritual guide.

Water as righteous life

Water has been revered as an essential element of life across different cultures and religions. In Chinese mythology, the mythical dragon controlled the water from which the world emerged, symbolizing the gift of continued life. For Buddhists, water represents the middle way, which is the path to enlightenment. The metaphor suggests that one should live a life that flows freely between indulgence and abstinence. Christians view water as a purifying agent that can cleanse the soul, which is exemplified by their baptismal rite of passage. Tea, a beverage created only through water, carries significant psychological triggers because of the myths and metaphors associated with it. Despite the temptation to focus on the technical aspects of tea, such as its chemical composition, it is important to acknowledge the beauty inherent in the sharing of a cup of tea. By doing so, we can appreciate tea as a source of poetry and metaphor rather than reduce it to a set of technical variables.

Water: Tea’s chemist

To a chai wallah in Mumbai who has been pouring hot masala chai from one container to another at a height of two to four feet, a discussion on the proper aeration of water may seem irrelevant. While the process of pulling the chai enhances its body and mouthfeel, making it taste better, explaining this technicality to the chai wallah may not be of interest to him. When asked, the chai wallah will likely say that he performs the ritual because it creates an experience for the customer, adding a touch of magic to their otherwise routine morning. For the chai wallah, it’s not just about improving the taste of the tea but about elevating a simple cup of tea into a memorable moment that transcends a mere caffeine and sugar rush. Therefore, it’s essential to respect and appreciate the mysticism and culture associated with tea, even as we delve into the technical analysis of it.

Analyzing water

The subtle flavors and aromas of tea demand high-quality water that doesn’t alter or overpower them. Choosing the right water for brewing tea should be simple: opt for a clear, odorless, uncontaminated, and refreshing source. Chemical analysis of water typically assesses the presence of thirteen different substances, such as alkalinity, color, pH, taste, odor, and the presence of microorganisms, metals, organics, and pharmaceuticals. However, obsessing over the ideal pH or the maximum allowable dissolved metals and salts can detract from the poetic beauty of sharing a cup of tea.

While water quality matters, focusing on the camaraderie and enjoyment of tea is more important than striving for the perfect cup. Nonetheless, water plays a crucial role in achieving a delightful tea experience, and it’s recommended to consider common-sense factors when selecting water for brewing. This ensures not only the pleasure of drinking tea but also its taste.


The clarity of water used for making tea is crucial. One of the most important aspects of enjoying a cup of tea is its appearance. Starting with cloudy water will lead to cloudy tea, which is often unpleasant to drink. Moreover, our perception of food and drink begins before we even taste them. In an experiment conducted in France, wine tasters were provided with a series of white wines to evaluate. The psychologists conducting the experiment added odorless food coloring to make the white wine appear red without the tasters’ knowledge. When evaluating the wines, all the tasters used descriptors commonly used for red wine, none of them used terms associated with white wines. This experiment highlights how our visual senses fundamentally alter the way we experience and taste food and drink. To have an exceptional tea experience, it is essential to start with clear water and make clear tea.


In “Sensing Tea“, we explain the olfactory referral illusion, where we often confuse retronasal olfaction for “taste,” enabling us to describe a tea’s taste as “floral” or “earthy.” This highlights the crucial role of smell in how we taste and experience tea. In fact, our sense of smell generally determines what we taste. Therefore, it is essential to emphasize the significance of using water with no odor to brew tea.

Aeration (Crispness)

The presence of dissolved oxygen in water plays a crucial role in its taste. Water containing high levels of dissolved oxygen is described as “crisp” while water with low levels of dissolved oxygen is referred to as “dull.” To enjoy a great-tasting tea, it is crucial to use aerated water that contains dissolved oxygen.

While the effect of dissolved oxygen on tea taste is debatable, there are some commonsense practices that you can follow. For instance, bottled water may taste dull as most brands contain very little dissolved oxygen, and the distillation process removes the water’s mineral content and dissolved oxygen. If bottled water is your only option, choose the brand that tastes the most crisp.

Reheating water evaporates the dissolved oxygen, leading to a dull taste. People often leave a pot of water on the stove for making tea, which is then reheated multiple times, eliminating the dissolved oxygen. Therefore, heat the water only once and avoid reheating previously heated or stagnant water.

Naturally flowing springs are one of the best sources of aerated water. However, if you don’t have access to one, your kitchen faucet can provide you with aerated water. Remember, the presence of dissolved oxygen is essential for a great-tasting tea.

Mineral content

Water’s taste is also affected by the concentration of dissolved solids, besides dissolved oxygen. Hard water, which contains high amounts of calcium and magnesium sulfate, has a distinct soda-powder taste. On the other hand, water lacking minerals tastes dull. However, water that has had all of its minerals removed, such as distilled water, also tastes flat or dull. The best water for making tea is one with a balanced mineral content.

Hard water not only affects the taste of tea but also causes a precipitate or scum to form around the cup’s rim. This scum is unsettling, particularly when entertaining guests. Similarly, showering with hard water causes soap to form a scum, which is hard to rinse off.

It’s essential to differentiate between hard water and water with high dissolved iron concentration. Water with high iron content tastes metallic and usually discolors the water. This water should not be used for making tea.

Permanently hard water, which contains noncarbonate compounds like calcium and magnesium sulfates, does not evaporate during boiling. In contrast, temporary hardness, which contains high amounts of calcium or magnesium carbonate compounds that evaporate during boiling, is not a significant concern for making tea, as these compounds can be boiled off if necessary.

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