Thursday, June 23, 2011

Harmonizing Water and Tea: Part 9- Water Additives- Silver Beads, Mineral Salts, Rocks, & Bamboo Charcoal

You rarely hear talk of people these days using water additives to help harmonize water and tea. However hundreds of years ago it was recommended by the Saint of Tea, Lu Yu, in his famous Book of Tea. Although a bit artificial, it works quite good. The major downside is that it disconnects us a bit from nature and the natural energies of the source. On the other hand, it is probably the most economical and environmentally friendly way to impact the water used for tea. Besides this, it also much greener than having water shipped, either from the edge of town, or worse, across the ocean. In that way the effective use of additives gives back to nature.

The most important benefit of using additives is that it gives the person preparing tea added control over the water. A good teamaster will tweak or change the quantity or type of water additive depending on the type of tea they are preparing and the source of the water they use- often having more than one additive at their disposal at one time. Now, this is truly harmonizing! This added control inevitably leads to a closer relationship with the water used for tea.

Below is a discussion of four different additives that one has come across- silver beads, rocks, salts, and bamboo charcoal.

One encountered a teamaster in Korea that was quite fond of using sliver beads to augment the properties of water. He placed them in his glass kettle and used tap water which was stored in traditional water containers. Although he used the silver beads to improve tap water, likely the use of silver beads could improve any water as the essence of silver is absorbed into the water. In this way these beads act like a less powerful silver tetsubin because the glass kettle is basically just a neutral container. As mentioned in Part 6 of this series, silver is strengthening, sweetening, and purifying and is especially effective at harmonizing with light teas such as green oolong, white, and green teas. This teamaster used these silver beads in preparing water primarily for Korean green tea and matcha and the result was quite noticeable.

Perhaps the most talked about additive is the use of mineral salts. This is the additive that was championed by Lu Yu insisting that a pinch of salt should be added to the tea water at boil. It is also the topic of a recent discussion and experimentation by modern day tea guru, Lew Perin, on NYC notorious tap water. There are primarily four types of mineral salts that are usually added to tea- sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. These minerals all impact the tea in different ways but the ways in which they are combined and the ratios of each create room for seemingly unlimited experimentation. In a traditional sense, salty taste is considered the most yin of all taste (which itself is a yin quality). Salt is said to be the most yin because salts induce salivation- following the concentration gradient a space that is highly salty will attract water (water is yin). It will also improve taste (taste is yin) as well as add softness and depth. Therefore salts directly strengthen the energetic quality of water.

It goes without saying that too much salt has a negative effect and will suppress the energy of water- experimenting to find the right amount with the right type of tea is needed. Water with extremely low proportions of these salts will benefit the tea no mater what type of tea will be used. Most tap water falls into this category of too little salts and minerals. However, if the water that you are adding already has lots of minerals in it, adding more may lead to an overwhelming of the water's essence and will result in bad tasting tea.

One has encountered rocks that rest in a glass kettle a number of times. They are most frequently seen throughout mainland China although Yumcha and Michel from the Tea Gallery in NYC also prefer this additive. Of course you can't just throw in any type of rock you find on the street- usually rocks containing a high mineral concentration are used from locations that are deemed as auspicious such as certain mountains. These rocks impart the qualities of nature, similar qualities that say a ceramic kettle or even mineral salts would. Traditionally, rocks are of the Earth element and therefore act to control the properties of water. They can be used to improve most tap water which usually lacks essence and depth. Water that has been boiled with rocks is best for darker heavier teas and can overwhelm lighter teas if the rocks are too potent.

One has also seen the use of bamboo charcoal to improve the quality of water. Stephane of Tea Masters finds this additive quite effective. Bamboo charcoal encompasses various elements. First, bamboo is of the Wood Element. It passes through the Fire Element as it is charred. Fire returns to earth as ash connecting it with the Earth Element. It shares qualities of all these elements. Charred substances are by nature ultra absorbent, bamboo is thought to be even more absorbent because it has an affinity for water (wood absorbs water), it is extremely dry and absorbs water like a sponge. In this way it is very effective at filtering the tastes and smells of water. Charred substances are truly substances of the element Earth so they are quite naturally harmonizing/ regulating in nature. So bamboo charcoal has some regulating effect- adding good, somewhat softening & sweetening, and removing bad, off tastes and smells. Primarily it removes bad because of its absorptive nature. Charred substances are black and therefore harmonize best with the most yin elements such as water. This additive can be added to the water storage container or directly to the kettle. Its use is more pronounced with tap water and its effect is noticed less with spring water, even taking away some of its essence.


Here are the links to the first 8 Parts of this series on harmonizing water and tea, just in case you missed them. There will be two more sections to come in the near future:

Double Peace


Matt said...


Here are 3 great recent posts by bloggers that focus on water:

By Marshal'N:

By Tom:

By Imen:


Lew Perin said...

“Tea guru”? It’s very nice of you to say that, but honestly it makes
me nervous. I’m a tea fanatic, not a tea expert, and really, I’m
unaware of having any “followers” except on Twitter. The reason tea
people pay me any attention is basically the (neverending) Babelcarp
project; the reason I began that wasn’t that I knew lots about tea or
Chinese, but that nobody else had done it and I had the needed
programming skills. Similarly, when I posted about making what I
called “poor man’s Volvic” by adding magnesium and calcium salts to
too-soft water, I was trying to get people interested in advancing our
knowledge rather than pretending to deliver some authoritative

OK, that’s out of the way.

I’m so glad you mentioned the Lù Yǔ “pinch of salt” business in this
context, because it really made me think. I’ve puzzled over this
idea occasionally since I first heard of it years ago, simply because
it seemed so weird. But now...maybe not. I wonder if what Lù Yǔ
actually meant was that you shouldn’t put in enough NaCl to give the
tea liquor a savory or brothy taste, but just enough to cause the
leaves to release a different flavor/profile/texture profile? I wish
I knew how much salt he really used. I just checked my copy of Warren
Peltier’s fine _The Ancient Art of Tea_, but I can’t find anything
bearing on the question there.

Matt said...

Lew Perin,

Maybe "tea (lexicon) guru" Hahaha...

And yes, it was in reference to the extremely useful Babelcarp.

About Lu Yu,

The comment by Steven Owyoung which was linked in the body of this post states that Lu Yu was a practical man. He probably knew that the best spring waters didn't need any salt but that 99.9% of people in China didn't have access to spring water. So as a generally rule of adding just a "pinch of salt" really seems practical because, just like in today's world, almost all water obtained was undermineralized. The rare instance that the water did have enough mineral content for a good bowl of tea really would not be spoiled by "just a pinch", or would just be so uncommon that it would be just such an unlikely occurrence (the exception to the rule).

Think that most people (writer included) pictured Lu Yu sipping on salty tea, after Steve wrote this comment one's thoughts really changed.

Perhaps "just a pinch of salt" is just as good advice now than it was oh so long ago.

Thanks for stopping by Lew,


Matt said...

Lew Perin,

What about a pinch of this:

A Vancouver Island sea salt captured just a short drive from town...

harmonizing with local energies... even better. :)

But sea salt would probably lack the balance of other minerals needed to add depth?

Just a thought...

Let the experimenting begin... Hahaha


Anonymous said...

Matt and Lew,

Salt is mentioned in Part Five of the Chajing 茶經, where Lu Yü describes his famous three stages of boiling water. The following is the quote about salt:

初沸, 則水合量, 調之以鹽味.
無迺口口[two rare Chinese characters]而鍾其一味乎.

“During the first boil, add a measure of salt appropriate to the amount of water to harmonize the flavor. This [salt] is meant to eliminate extraneous tastes from the water. Could not [the] tastelessness [of such seasoned water] only concentrate the singular flavor of tea?”

According to Lu Yü, a measure of salt commensurate with the quantity of water was added to the boiling water to season or “harmonize” the flavor of the water. He further explains that the addition of salt is to “eliminate extraneous tastes” inherent in the water. Finally, he poses the rhetorical question paraphrased as “How could it not but be that such tasteless water would only enhance the true flavor of tea?”

Apparently, Lu Yü believed that salt had a purifying effect on water and removed any hint of flavor or odor from it. When added to water for tea, salt made the water tasteless, much like the renowned spring waters of Wuxi or Hangzhou that were intrinsically without flavor or smell. Thus, tasteless or naturally neutral water was the perfect vehicle for tea.


Matt said...


Thanks so much for elaborating again (you are also "guru" quality... Hahaha)!

Okay, this makes sense. Very hard water often can taste stale and flat easily picking up sulfur and chlorine like off notes. One has heard before from locals of an area with really hard water that it tastes quite a bit better from a water softener, cloaking some of these off tastes and smells in the hard water. Lu Yu was effectively trying to soften hard water, thereby strengthening it, making it more suitable for tea.

"True spring water has no taste and true water no smell." -from Section 16. Grades of Spring Water in ChaSinJeon

See here:


Lew Perin said...

Last night I had an email conversation with Warren Peltier, who had some very interesting things to say. I'm reproducing what he said in two parts because Blogger won't allow a single comment as long as his:

>However hundreds of years ago it was recommended by the Saint of Tea, Lu Yu, in his famous Book of Tea. 

>Although a bit artificial, it works quite good. The major downside is that it disconnects us a bit from nature and the natural energies of the source. 
I wouldn't characterize it as artificial. The ancients abhorred artificial in their tea. Rather, it was necessary. If you have good tea, but poor water, what are you to do?  Poor water could ruin tea, so ancients had to find ways to refresh, nourish, condition, and improve water flavor. 

>On the other hand, it is probably the most economical and environmentally friendly way to impact the water used for tea. Besides this, it also much greener >than having water shipped, either from the edge of town, or worse, across the ocean. In that way the effective use of additives gives back to nature.
This was a point well taken with the ancients. Although those well-off could afford to send porters to fetch water from distant mountain springs (which was perhaps folly because water is prone to evaporation, tainting, loss, not to mention very heavy). The more practical method would be to take a good source of local water, store it in large earthenware jars in a secluded part of the courtyard (free from odors), and perhaps condition it by adding various things (one writer mention Fu Long Gan - the charred, hardened earth under a fire).

>One encountered a teamaster in Korea that was quite fond of using sliver beads to augment the properties of water. 
I haven't heard of using silver in China (either in ancient or present times) for conditioning water. However, Lu Yu was known to favor utensils of silver and gold, for elaborate tea ceremonies.

On the other hand, according to the theory of the Five Elements, metal  is the mother of water, giving birth to water; which is why metal kettles were preferred for  boiling water. The ancients were certainly aware of the Five Elements philosophy like Xu Ci Shu (see p. 70 and p. 79 of The Ancient Art of Tea). The sequence is wood-fire-earth-metal-water; it's best to draw a pentagram to really see the connection. It's a reciprocal, beneficial and adversarial (when backward)  relationship. Also note that Five Elements is an ancient philosophy, used by ancients to explain the whys of the world around them - part of their cosmological view. Ancient thinking is not necessarily applicable or as sound as modern science though. So take it with a grain of salt (pun intended). 

>This is the additive that was championed by Lu Yu insisting that a pinch of salt should be added to the tea water at boil. 

Lu Yu said: "at first boil, according to the amount of water, add a suitable amount of salt to season the water. Taste the water as you add the salt, discarding the rest from your ladle. However, just because you can't taste the salt, add too much extra." Lu Yu had a utensil for measuring the salt, perhaps a small spoon. Salt in ancient times was obtained from salt springs, among other sources (see NHK/KBS Ancient Tea Horse Road video). It wasn't pure NaCl - it had other mineral components in it - which is interesting to note. Perhaps using some of the "gourmet salts" available - like Himalayan rock salt would be more nearer to the Tang tea experience. Must admit, haven't really tried that though.

So to answer your question, yes, Lu Yu's tea was probably not at all salty in taste.

Lew Perin said...

Here is the concluding part of Warren Peltier's comment:

>Of course you can't just throw in any type of rock you find on the street- usually rocks containing a high mineral concentration are used from locations that >are deemed as auspicious such as certain mountains. 


The critical issue here (see The Ancient Art of Tea p. 41 “Tea brewing at the place where it is manufactured is refined because they are of the same water and earth...) is to match local tea to local mineral content water. And the way to re-create the local mineral content water in tea brewing is to collect stones in the area where the tea is growing. If brewing Wuyi Zhengyan tea, use stones found near the Wuyi cliffs in your water. I collected some small stones from Wuyi, I first boil the water, then pour it over a stone in another kettle to "steep". That water is really sweet!

However, if I were to make Fuzhou green tea, then I should probably choose stones from the mountains of Fuzhou, for example.

>One has also seen the use of bamboo charcoal to improve the quality of water. 
I've tried bamboo charcoal, but I'm not a fan of that method. Boiling it in a kettle gives the water a smoky odor and taste. It also releases some small black particles into the water. I've tried just using the charcoal in a spare pot to store water before boiling. But it doesn't really tastes as good as water nourished/conditioned from stones.

On another note, besides charcoal, burnt earth, silver beads, stones to condition water, the day before yesterday at the Xiamen Tea Expo, I met a manager of a jade company who successfully used jade to improve wine flavor - and now wants to use the process to improve tea flavor. They're making some way fancy jade teapots and soon other tea utensils - most priced beyond the reach of regular tea drinkers (jade teapots cost $5-10K USD). He had a cup of small jade beads to put into a kettle when one boils water. But I haven't tried it yet. They will send me some next month. The jade comes from the Kunlun mountains.

In China, they have a brand of bottled spring water called Kun Shan 昆山 - it's the best bottled spring water available in China - very sweet tasting. Water from Kunlun mountains is pretty good for tea - I tried it. So there might be something to using jade tea utensils to improve tea flavor.

Ho Go said...

Gentleman, all this is a nice way to keep busy. The variables are endless. No way to know what Lu Yu drank or how it tasted. Would we even like it?

The idea of a pinch of salt is interesting. The best chefs will tell you salt is a key ingredient in their cuisine and that all salts are not created equally. This is very true as the difference between ancient sea bed deposits and commercially made salts is enormous and the effect on food is easily tasted. Someone just gave me a bag of 100 million year old Himalayan salt. Let the bidding begin!

In the same vein, charcoal from different makers will also vary. I've never gotten that burnt flavor from the bamboo charcoal I've used but the bits and pieces you get in the kettle is unavoidable, I think, but my kettle has a strainer built into it. I stopped using bamboo charcoal when I switched over to bottled mineral water from Northern Thailand. Now, I just have to deal with the scale!

Matt said...

Lew & Warren,

Thanks for sharing all those details!

Regarding the use of local rocks/salts/additives from the same geographical area as the tea you are preparing- One had written this in one's notes but, for some reason, it didn't make it into the post.

Jade, hey, never heard of that one! Guess it just doesn't get more auspicious than Kul Lun Mountain. Have seen jade tea pots before, never tried tea from them though. :) Guess jade would soften, lighten, cool, and sooth the qi of the water. Image this water would be best for lighter teas.

Regarding the use of Fu Long Gan (charred yellow earth), one has never heard of it as a tea additive. As it is also a charred substance, so in many ways would energetically work similar to bamboo charcoal- it has a strong affinity for absorbing flavours and smells. Traditionally Fu Long Gan is used in herbal medicine, the Chinese believe that its yellow colour improves its ability to stabilize and harmonize. So this would indicate why it was used in water -removing the bad, adding the good. Fu Long Gan can easily be obtained in Chinatown for those who wish to experiment.

See here:

Fu Long Gan or a close derivative is apparently an active component of Onggi. The use of Onggi as a storage container for water used to prepare tea is discussed in the comments here:

Regarding the use of bamboo charcoal, one also quickly discontinued its use for the same reason- one was also already using spring water and found that it noticeably degraded the water which was probably already optimal for tea before the charcoal was added.

Wonderful discussion.


Matt said...


One's not so positive opinion of bamboo charcoal was expressed a few times on this blog. Those small pieces of charcoal can't possibly be healthy for you- burnt particles are generally considered carcinogenic. All those pieces, never mind those that you cannot see, are going right into your body!

Nevertheless, the use of bamboo charcoal for tap water does have a noticeable positive effect on the water. Considering the above mentioned comments, its use is probably better in a water storage container rather than in the kettle.

Likely Fu Long Gan (charred yellow earth) would be best used in the water storage container as well, less you want the taste of ash in your water.

"I switched over to bottled mineral water from Northern Thailand."

Guess you gave up on spring water in downtown Bangkok?



Ho Go said...

bamboo charcoal may be most effective in the kettle that is boiling the water rather than a water storage jar.In traditional Thai filtration systems, water is passed through a layer of bamboo charcoal amongst other layers of material that filter the water. The key here is that the water is moving, not static. This allows more contact with the charcoal and the water. I am assuming that in the kettle, the movement of the water will have more contact with the charcoal, too. This is only an assumption, not based on any scientific fact. But, for water systems that contain chlorine, charcoal is suprisingly effective in removing it and neutralizing the taste.
As for the carcinogen theory, bamboo charcoal is often given for gastro-intestinal problems. The absorptive quality of it is very high with no side effects. But, the quantity of ingested particles from the kettle is rather small and in my case, my kettle has a built in filter to trap most of the small particles. Can some charcoals break down more than others? There are different methods of producing charcoal and probably differing qualities. I think if I had to use an additive in my water storage container, it would be small rocks.

Lew Perin said...

Warren Peltier has some more to say on this topic:

I've been thinking about the issue of salt and Lu Yu's tea. If youread the section on water (see The Ancient Art of Tea, p. 36), it seems he and later many other writers took pains to use pure, untainted sources of water, while recognizing that not all water sources were suitable for tea. So I don't think adding salt (though it did contribute minerals) to the boiling water was for the purpose of water conditioning. Instead, it was perhaps a way to lessen the bitterness of the tea. Lu Yu's tea was boiled. When boiling green tea it does become bitter, doesn’t it? Yet by the Song Dynasty, salt was not used, though powdered, steamed green tea was still essentially used (though by now of more refined quality than in the Tang). If salt were a way to condition or improve water, it should have continued into the Song Dynasty and be incorporated into whisked tea - but was not. Therefore, I think salted water was a necessary requirement for boiled powdered green tea.

Why was salt used in the Tang Dynasty tea yet not used in Song Dynasty tea? The difference lies in tea preparation method from boiled green to poured green tea, powdered and whisked in a shallow bowl. I or anyone really, can try some experiments to see what happens when salt is added to boiled water in preparation of boiled green tea. Would you like some salt in your tea?

Lew Perin said...

This just in from Warren Peltier:

I was just too curious today, so I tried the salt and green tea experiment myself. First, I boiled 2 cups of water, up to the fish-eye stage, added salt (about 1/4 tsp)added more cold water, allowing to come to boil at fish eye stage again, then finally added a handful of Maofeng spring green tea leaves from the mountains of Fuzhou and immediately turned off the heat, pouring into a glass to examine tea soup color. This is a tea I've had many times, so I know the taste. The result? First, I tasted the water (as Lu Yu advises), it wasn't overly salty, but there was some salty taste to it. The tea soup was a pale yellow, much like we would expect. The first cup had a slight salty taste, with little tea flavor. After finishing a bowl of that, which was really like broth, I tried another bowl of the still-steeping tea in the pot. This second try had a much more tea flavorful appeal - no hint of bitterness at all; except I perhaps added too much salt which seemed to overpower the tea. For the remaining batch in the pot, I re-heated it, letting it come to a full boil - just to see the effect. I poured a murky dark-yellow brew into my glass - which just by color should mean extremely bitter. But when I sipped it, surprisingly, it was only slightly bitter; however, it had a very bitter aftertaste to it, a nasty kick. Still, it was not as bitter as it should have been. I found the second batch the most pleasant, except next time, I'll add decidedly less salt.

Anonymous said...


As for the use of salt in tea during the Tang dynasty, it is likely that the addition of salt to boiling water improved the flavor of brewed tea. Yet, it is also probable that salt purified water by acting as an oxidant and precipitant to organic matter naturally present in river, spring, and well water.

To reiterate, in Part Five of the Chajing 茶經 (Book of Tea), Lu Yü mentioned first mentioned salt as an fundamental step in preparing the water for brewing tea and explained its function in the first boil:

初沸, 則水合量, 調之以鹽味. 謂棄其啜餘. 無迺囗囗[無味]而鍾其一味乎.

“At the first boil, harmonize the water with the flavor of salt in a measure appropriate to the amount of water. This is called eliminating extraneous tastes. How could it not be that tastelessness but concentrates the singular flavor of tea?”

However, further on in Part Five, he mentioned the first boil again:

第一煮水沸, 而棄其沫之上有水膜如黑雲母. 飲之則其味不正.

“During the first boil, discard the dark, mica-like film on the foam. Drink it and the flavor [of the tea] will not be true.”

In procedure and sequence, the addition of salt to boiling water effected the oxidation and precipitation of foreign matter resulting in a discolored film floating on the foaming water. That Lu Yü should instruct specifically its removal from the water before brewing tea indicates that the formation of film was a common occurrence and a logical consequence of the measure of salt. Purity of water ensured the true taste of tea.

After over a millennium since his death around 804 A.D., Lu Yü has been celebrated as the Saint of Tea and a minor poet. However, he was widely acknowledged during his life as one of the most brilliant and accomplished scholars of the time, esteemed by the court and the throne. He was an exceptional adept of Daoist practices and expert in the culinary, herbal, and alchemical arts. Whether as flavoring or as purifier, Lu Yü well understood salt to be essential to the art of Tang boiled tea, and he purposefully applied his arcane knowledge in the writing of the Chajing茶經.