Good Water Is the Key to a Better Cup of Tea

In her new book, Emilie Holmes, founder of London-based Good and Proper Tea, shares tips for the perfect brew
March 22, 2020 Updated: March 22, 2020

Whether you’re a loose leaf aficionado or make your morning cup with tea bags, you’ll know that to make a cup of tea you only need two things—the tea itself and hot water. Getting the water right, therefore, can make the difference between a good cup and an unpalatable one—bad water making even the best leaves taste lackluster.

Freshly Drawn Water

For the liveliest cup of tea you’ll need freshly drawn water. That means don’t just flip the switch on your kettle and reheat water that’s been sitting there already—fill your kettle afresh. The best flavor is drawn out of the tea leaves using oxygen-rich water. Water that has been sitting a while, or more likely boiled over and over again, will lack oxygen, leaving your cup of tea tasting flat.

Not only is this one of the easiest ways to improve your morning brew, it is also a good one to get right for the sake of the environment. Although ditching full kettles of old water is no good thing, according to the Energy Saving Trust, if we all got into the habit of filling the kettle with only as much water as we need (rather than filling it to the top each time) that could save enough electricity in a year to power nearly half of all the street lighting in the U.K.

Hard or Soft Water?

Truth be told, tea will always taste at its absolute best when brewed using the same local spring water that is used to nurture the tea plants at origin, but that’s no use to us at home! Depending on where you live, you’ll likely know whether your area has hard or soft water.

For example, unfortunately for Londoners, the water is very hard due to the high levels of naturally occurring calcium carbonate (the chalky substance that causes limescale) and magnesium compounds, making it a less than ideal starting point for tea. This mineral-rich, hard water is alkaline and tends to produce a thick, chalky, and sometimes even metallic-tasting cup. It is also slow and inefficient at extracting flavor.

Soft water, on the other hand, is acidic. Though that makes it much more efficient in dissolving flavor, it tends to happen too quickly, meaning your brew will often over-extract, leaving it tasting bitter and astringent.

There is a happy medium to be found—as close to pure spring water as possible in terms of acidity, with a pH of around 7. If your local tap water is excessively hard or soft, therefore, you’ll need to filter it. You’ll be amazed by how much more vibrant the tea looks, and how much more you’ll taste in 
the cup.

Water Temperature

Now you’ve got the water quality sussed, it’s time to think about the temperature of that water. Different teas brew best at different temperatures, and getting it right can be the difference between a deliciously smooth cup and an unpleasantly bitter one.

For example, green teas contain high levels of amino acids, responsible for sweetness and fresh, delicate aromas, as well as polyphenols, such as tannins, which deliver more astringent, bitter characteristics. While the latter are dissolved in water just off the boil, amino acids dissolve at around 140 degrees F, so to bring out the most desirable sweet, fresh flavor notes of a green tea, we need to lower the temperature of the water. Making this simple adjustment often turns a green tea hater into a fanatic, because green teas brewed with boiling water—as they so often are—can be unpleasantly bitter.

On the other hand, water that is not hot enough can, for other teas, leave your cup lacking. Those same polyphenols are key to delivering flavor in black teas, and they are not released unless the water is just off the boil. To get the full flavor that the description of the tea promises, you’re therefore best following the instructions carefully in this book.

As a general rule of thumb, black teas and herbs like heat, while oolongs, greens, and whites need you to bring the temperature down. You can achieve this at home by either switching off the kettle before it reaches a boil, or by flipping the lid of the kettle once boiled and allowing the water a few minutes to cool before pouring it over the leaves. Even better—get yourself a temperature-controlled kettle.

For hundreds of years, the Chinese have simply watched the water as it is heated in order to determine the temperature, observing the way the water, and more specifically the size of the bubbles, changes as the temperature rises. So if you’ve got a glass kettle or even a pan on the stove, use this simple method for getting the water temperature right for your type of tea:

“Shrimp Eyes”: The first small bubbles appear on the base of the pan—158 degrees F.

“Crab Eyes”: The bubbles have expanded to the size of crabs’ eyes, with the first wisps of steam coming off the surface of the water—176 degrees F.

“Fish Eyes”: The bubbles grow larger still and now start to gently rise to the surface—185 degrees F.

“String of Pearls”: Streams of bubbles now rise to the surface—200 degrees F.

“Raging Torrent”: What we call a rolling boil—212 degrees F.

 Iron Buddha tea
Oolong teas, such as Iron Goddess tea, require lower-than-boiling water temperatures for best results. (Steven Joyce)

Brewing Guides for Popular Teas

Darjeeling (Black tea)

Origin: Darjeeling, India

Grown on the steep slopes of the Himalayas, Darjeelings, known as the “champagne” of teas, are highly sought-after the world over, thanks to their unique, wine-like profile. While the first plucking of the year, or “first flush,” is crisp, floral, and delicate, the musky sweetness of the more full-bodied second flush Darjeeling makes for a deliciously fragrant afternoon tea—best enjoyed without milk.

Tea Leaves: 3 grams (1 rounded teaspoon) per 7 fluid ounces water

Water Temperature: Just boiled

Brew Time: 3 minutes

For the Perfect Cup: Brew 3 grams (1 rounded teaspoon) of good loose leaves in 7 fluid ounces of freshly boiled water for 3 minutes.

Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tieguanyin) (Oolong tea)

Origin: China

Among the most popular and certainly the best known of the Chinese oolongs, Iron Goddess of Mercy undergoes a medium oxidation and long, careful baking over bamboo. The resulting infusion is honey-sweet and smooth, with notes of roasted chestnuts and dried fruit.

Tea Leaves: 2.5 grams (1 teaspoon) per 7 fluid ounces water

Water Temperature: 200 degrees F

Brew Time: 4–6 minutes

For the Perfect Cup: Brew 2.5 grams (1 teaspoon) of good loose leaves in 7 fluid ounces of 200-degree-F water for 4–6 minutes. Good quality leaves can be re-infused multiple times.

Dragon Well (Longjing) (Green tea)

Origin: China

The most famous of China’s green teas, originating from Zhejiang province, these spring-green leaves are shaped and fired by hand in hot woks. Not only does this process give them their characteristically flat, sword-like appearance, the pan-firing also lends this green tea its distinctive buttery sweetness and notes of roasted chestnuts.

Tea Leaves: 3 grams (1 heaped teaspoon) per 7 fluid ounces water

Water Temperature: 176 degrees F

Brew Time: 4 minutes

For the Perfect Cup: Brew 3 grams (1 heaped teaspoon) of good loose leaves in 7 fluid ounces of 176-degree-F water for 4 minutes. Good quality leaves can be re-infused multiple times.

Excerpted with permission from “Good and Proper Tea: From Leaf to Cup, How to Choose, Brew, and Cook With Tea” by Emilie Holmes and Ben Benton. Published by Kyle Books.