“Tea For Hard Water”. Aha, you think, just what I need. And, of course, when we think of problem water types it’s hard water we think of first.
Does your kettle – like mine – look like the inside of a great cave system, limescale forming huge stalagmites on the element?
Have your got your boiler engineer’s phone number on speed-dial, for when your central heating finally grinds to a halt?
If that’s you, you know all about hard water.
Are you wondering what all the fuss is about?
If so, you lucky, lucky tea lover, you have the joy of soft water – but that has its own challenges.
Why should this make a difference to your tea, and what can be done about it?
A cup of tea is little more than flavoured hot water. When you infuse tea leaves in hot water, some of the flavour-containing compounds in the tea, the catechins, are dissolved into the water.
The water becomes coloured and delicious.
- Hard water has a high pH (it is a base, or alkaline)
- Soft water has a low pH (it is acidic – sometimes remarkably so).
You know this already, in a way. Do you have a garden? Do you grow rhododendrons?
If so, you will know that they love peaty, acidic soil.
Parts of the country with that type of soil typically have very acidic water, which we call soft.
Where I live, it’s the other extreme. My water comes off the South Downs, which are made of chalk. The water is very alkaline and contains vast quantities of minerals and chalk. I definitely need a tea for hard water.
Acidic (soft) water is much more efficient at dissolving the flavour compounds of tea. It extracts more flavour more quickly.
Hard water is the opposite. Tea flavour is dissolved slowly and inefficiently. Therefore, in the most general terms, a hard water tea needs to be better than a soft water tea.
You might be wondering whether you could simply brew tea for longer in hard water.
It’s not that simple.
There are many compounds in tea, and they dissolve at different rates.
First comes the colour, then the raw strength (harsh tannins if present), and finally the rich flavour
This, by the way, is why cheap supermarket blends can be so cheap – they just have lots of colour and tannin, which fools some people into thinking that their tea is nice and strong. It’s not! There is no flavour.
Tea For Soft Water
A soft water tea needs a soft water blend. If the tea has too much colour and raw strength, your cuppa will taste bitter and flavourless. You need a slower-brewing tea, with more flavour than strength.
Tea For Hard Water
A hard water blend needs lots of quality Assams and East African teas, with plenty of “guts” and strength. It needs flavour too, of course, but this flavour will be the rich, malty type that punches through the hard water.
But wait! There’s more!
Of course there is.
There are different ways of measuring water hardness.
One is by acidity. What is the pH of the water?
Then, we look at the concentration of different hardness salts – calcium, magnesium, etc.
The calcium salt is calcium carbonate – limescale.
It’s not as simple as how hard or soft your water is.
It’s what are the dissolved salts that are making it hard?
When you look at it, most of us are drinking mineral water, right out of our taps. That’s no bad thing – some of those hardness salts are good for us, and we could pay a lot of money to buy it in a bottle.
But you need to choose your tea accordingly – and get your plumber’s number on speed dial.
Did you know that when you make a cup of tea in London, the fresh, clean, hygienic water in your kettle has been drunk by seven people before you?
The water companies have to do a lot of work to make that water safe to drink, which includes adding chlorine. When they change the dosing bottles, you can smell the chlorine as soon as you run the tap.
Your local tea should take account of all these factors.
Your Local Tea Blend
When I create a new Local Tea Blend, I start by looking at a map.
What is the geology of the area? What would common-sense tell me about that area’s water? Is it likely to vary during the seasons?
Next, I use the internet to research the water in that area. There’s a lot of information available.
Then I pick up the phone and talk to the local water company. Most of them are remarkably helpful.
They have engineers and scientists on their staff who can explain exactly what is going on to make the water in your tap the way it is (it usually varies from postcode to postcode, as well as throughout the year, so I need to approximate slightly to find a “best fit”).
That’s Phase One complete and I know enough to make a pretty good first stab at a blend.
Phase Two requires good old-fashioned tea-tasting skills and a bit of legwork.
We drive up to the area in question and obtain a water sample (normally 20 litres). We usually need to beg a favour here from one of our customers, because it’s important that the water comes out of a normal tap. We need to keep everything as true to real life as possible.
Then we drive back home to Portsmouth.
The next day, there is a frenzy of tasting, adjusting, tasting, adjusting and tasting again.
After what is usually a fairly long day’s work, we have a new Local Tea Blend.
It will be of the same style as every other tea blend (rich, strong and full of flavour), but adjusted to suit your local water perfectly (if I’ve done my job well, that is.)
The work is not over. We must keep an eye on things – listen to customer feedback – visit the area from time to time to take a new water sample.
In short, we must do everything necessary to maintain the quality of the blend (you see, the ingredients of any blend change over time, depending upon tea growing conditions and the tea markets).
Is it worth so much trouble?
I can’t deny it’s a lot of work creating the blends.
It’s even more work afterwards.
Consider this for a moment: most tea companies have just one main blend to make, and maybe a couple of low-volume extras.
We have hundreds.
Each one has to be blended, packed into tea bags, and labelled – all fairly hands-on processes for us. Mass production and economies of scale go out of the window.
And we don’t charge much more. In fact, a month’s supply of one of our Local Tea Blends is about the price of a pint down your local.
And yet: my answer is yes, wholeheartedly, it’s worth it.
The supermarket tea brands have a tough job. They have to meet the supermarket buyers’ price targets, and quality must be adjusted accordingly.
My job is completely different. Our Local Tea Blends are a different product. We are specialists in quality tea.
As we have just seen, water is a key factor in that.
And that’s why we produce our Local Tea Blends.