A famous tea scholar from Ming dynasty once wrote in his book, “that beautiful tea’s inner aroma is stimulated by water. No water, no tao of tea”. Water bears tea, soaks in aroma, serves as the media for its spirit and significance. Brewing tea and discernment of water is a distinguishing trait of ancient Chinese tea aficionado intellectuals. They paid particular attention to exquisite water and regarded flowing water as the best to bring out a tea’s taste and flavor. Flowing water does not spoil.
Above excerpt is the painting from Wen Zhenming, Ming dynasty, Taiwan National Palace Museum.
Wang An Shi was a Zai Xiang (equivalent to today's prime minister) of Song dynasty, who was a tea aficionado and also a tea maven in discerning water quality. He had upper lung problems so the doctor instructed him to drink tea, often with the water that he instructed must be from the middle stream of the Yangzi river. During ancient times, tea was easier to obtain than water. So he asked his good friend Shu Dong Po, who was also a tea aficionado and would soon be traveling by boat and passing by the Three Gorges of the Yangzi river. When Shu's boat passed by the middle gorge, he had fallen asleep and didn't get any water. By the time Shu woke up and realized the mistake, the boat was already in the lower stream of the Yangzi, but he decided to fetch the water anyway.
When Shu took the water to Wang’s residence, Wang couldn’t wait to use the water to brew tea. However, after Wang tasted the tea, he raised his eyebrows, and asked Shu which part of the river the water was from. With a little guilty conscience, Shu replied “the middle of the current”. Wang retorted “No, no. It is from the lower current of Yangzi.” Shu was so surprised and shouted out, “Water on the Three Gorges are interconnected, how could you discern the water and how do you know the water is from the lower current?” Wang laughed, “The upper current rushes with rapids and draws out strong flavor, but the lower current is slow and drifting, so it produces weak flavor. Only the middle current is neither rapid nor slow, so the flavor is just right. Rapid current coming down with a swirl has the upright temper, so it has the medicinal function of dispelling mucus. The tea color from this water is slow to appear and the flavor is weak, so I know it was taken from the lower stream.” To put this into context, during the Song dynasty about 1200 years ago, there was only green tea, no black tea or other type of tea had been developed by then.
As this story reveals, ancient tea aficionados pay very high respect to water. They had already recognized the importance of water in making a great cup of tea. They fetched water from rivers, streams, springs, and wells. Before use, the water had to go through stirring, sinking, precipitating, and storing. This process is called Yang Shui, or culturing water, to preserve the natural quality of water without destroying the composition of the water.
In modern days, the environment has completely changed, and a lot of pollutants are in the water, so there is no comparison to the ancient times. While tap water is convenient, it has a lot of chlorine and a noticeable smell from the chemicals associated with water plant processing. These added foreign substances will unavoidably damage the quality of tea during steeping. Tap water is certainly a no-no.
Above, the origin of Tie Guan Yin oolong tea.
Spring water, on the other hand, flows constantly in the mountains. It penetrates through the layers of earth stones, which acts like multiple filters to remove the impurities from the water. Because it is clean and has many micronutrients, it can actively stimulate the compounds in the tea and thus bring out the best of the tea. We would also recommend against the use of purified water, as good micronutrients are removed during the purification process, leaving the water flavorless, producing a bland tasting tea, especially as compared to tea brewed with spring water.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of the quality of the water. There are a lot of different types of water on the market, so feel free to experiment for yourself to determine which water works best for your brew.