Tea is nothing without water. If we have to rank the importance of a perfect tea experience, the quality of water is definitely on a par with quality of tea.
The old tea wisdom says: the quality of tea is expressed by water. An 8/10 tea meets a 10/10 water, the tea becomes 10/10; a 10/10 tea meets a water that’s only 8/10, the tea downgrades to 8/10. (From Mr. Zhang Dafu’s book “Records of the Plum Cottage”. Zhang, 1554-1630, was an author and phonetician in late Ming dynasty.)
In the past, we’ve published many blogs explaining the significant role that water plays in a good tea experience. Today, let's continue discussing why boiling water can be a test standard for premium teas.
Among tea makers, there’s an established saying that “good teas do not fear boiling water” (Chinese: 好茶不怕开水烫). It means that quality teas need to be infused with boiling water to bring out all good aromas and tastes.
To our American and European readers, this might sound strange at first. In these markets, most tea products you can buy in supermarkets or local tea stores instruct you to use very specific temperatures for different teas. And nearly all suggested temperatures are below the boiling temperature (100℃/212℉).
Some tea store owners often explain that the lower temperature is to protect tea leaves from being burned by hot water.
Furthermore, they argue that teas infused with low-temperature water can produce a better taste.
Of course, these claims are false.
First of all, tea leaves have a complex combination of fragrances and flavors. Some of these fragrances and flavors have a low boiling point, and some have a high boiling point. During the growth period, tea plants acquire various nutrient essences from the growing environment. After the harvest, these essences are further enhanced during the tea-making process.
Lower quality leaves generally have chaotic high-boiling-point aromatic alcohol compounds (see Blog 84 for more). When infused with boiling water, these defects are easily exposed. Saying that a tea infused with boiling water doesn’t taste good is more an excuse than a fact.
Good quality tea leaves have rich and balance nutrient essences, and they’re able to endure water at the boiling temperature without a problem. Moreover, in some teas’ tea-making process, the heat can exceed way over the boiling point of water (such as Wuyi oolong’s roasting process, see Blog 30 for details). If tea leaves cannot be harmed by all that heat, how can boiling water burn them?
(Even green tea, a category that usually needs to be steeped in water all the time, can be made with boiling water if two conditions are met: 1. using a Gaiwan; 2. steeping less than 5 seconds. If green tea is steeped in boiling water for too long, unoxidized tea polyphenols would cause a dry mouthfeel of the tea soup.)
The relationship of tea and water is a close one. Many tea lovers are aware that the water quality is crucial. But we cannot overlook the importance of water temperature either. The water temperature is often a good tool to test the quality of a tea.
Good teas can endure and display the most attractive characters with boiling water; low quality teas cannot hide its defects with boiling water. Boiling water is the not only essential for more premium teas, but also a magic mirror for exposing low quality teas.
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