Thursday, November 10, 2011

Harmonizing Water and Tea: Part 12- My Personal Experience With Water

Early in this series on water Bev of Listening to Leaves asked about my personal experiences and journey with water. I had promised her to address it in a post, the last of this series on harmonizing water and tea. As I began typing I realized that the post was quite long and will therefore be separated into two sections that will be posted within days of each other...

In Korea the bottled mineral water called "Sam Da Soo" is considered the standard for tasting tea. It is a very light rain water that is naturally filtered through the natural volcanic soil on Jeju Island. This water is very soft yet still has a subtle soft mouthfeel. It is great for harmonizing with very subtle green teas, the tea I was consuming the most at that time. I used this water for years before switching to a local source that was bottled in those 18.9 L blue jugs from a mountain spring near my residence (they can be seen here in an early post on water and tea). This local water was moderately heavier and had a broader mineralization.

The reason for the change was threefold. First I was uneasy with the amount of waste that I was creating as I went through many 2L bottles of Sam Da Soo weekly. Secondly, I hoped to consume water from a more local source that would be much fresher and vibrant than the bottled water from Jeju Island and would also harmonize best with the local climate. Thirdly, I started drinking more deeper, darker, heavier teas that harmonized better with heavier more mineralized waters.

The heat source I use to boil the water is taken from the teamasters I had learned from in Korea. The most serious city dwelling tea masters generally have at least two sources of heat. The first is induction heat. It is quick and brings water to a vigorous and rapid boil without depleting its essence. The second is infrared charcoal heat or electric heat from a braizier. The third is often a glass kettle or stainless steel kettle that is heated on a gas range stove.

In Korea, life is fast and often people drop by with little notice. A quick boil is often required so that guests are not waiting hours for a cup of tea. So in many instances in real life induction heat creates more harmony among guests and is a good option. My experience with induction heat is that it retains much of the vibrancy of the water because it brings water to a very quick boil and then automatically turns off as to not deplete the essence of the water. Often other methods boil too slowly or end up over boiling the water which leads to water that lacks vibrancy. Although induction kettles likely deplete or alter some of the natural properties of water, the benefit of the quick boil and auto stop outweighs the loss.

Currently, I don't use an induction kettle since my last one broke earlier this year. All of the induction kettles that I have gone through in Korea and the one I purchased in Canada have been glass kettles with a stainless steel base. The last one I bought in Canada was a Black & Decker JKC660BC 1.8L Glass Kettle- don't think it lasted a year. The glass kettle has the benefit of being able to see the stage of boil which is beneficial when deciding when to remove the kettle from boil.

I decided not to replace the induction kettle for five reasons. First, I am somewhat concerned about the constant exposure to its electromagnetic field. Second, I want to utilize the benefits derived from the use of my ceramic tang gwan (kettle). Third, I hope to slow down the pace of tea drinking so as it is more reflective and meditative, more true to its original form. Fourth, I seem to go through one induction kettle every few years and it is beginning to be wasteful. Fifth, I have a normal, run of the mill, stove top glass kettle that I heat over my gas range which I use if I need a quick boil.

It is pretty much unanimous amoung teamasters that infrared heat generated by natural hardwood charcoal gives birth to the most optimal water for tea. My experience with the use of charcoal heat confirms this classic observation. It generates water that is vibrant and full of Qi, that is deep and penetrating in nature, but is also very soft. I continue to use charcoal heat when time permits or when having guests. Getting the charcoal to Canada has proven expensive and difficult though.

I use an Uh Sang Myung ceramic stove and since its matching tang gwan got destroyed when shipped to Canada it has since been replaced by one by Kim Jeong Hoon. The ceramic tang gwan gives the water properties that I have stated in this article and generally harmonize best with the tea I normally drink and matches the aesthetic of my tea space. Because I drink a variety of different teas, I feel that this is the best option as it benefits both lighter and heavier teas. I have experience with iron tetsubins as well, I feel they are also a great option- especially if you are drinking more heavier teas. I sometimes feel that I could get a little more out of my old puerh tea if I had one of these. My experience with silver is limited as I have only had tea made for me in silver and have not played around with it myself. Stay away from stainless steel as it always carries a bad taste even after years of use.

The type of heat source that I use the most nowadays is from a hot plate. I purchased a Cadco Portable 1500w Electric Single Burner Hd Cast Iron Range (note the warning about using containers constructed of ceramics or glass... hahaha). It is nice because I can either use my glass kettle or my ceramic tang gwan (they haven't exploded yet!!!). It gives off nice heat that creates a natural ambiance which I feel is invaluable to my tea experience. It also adds a touch of metal to the feng shui of my tea space which is otherwise lacking. It takes a bit of time to bring water to a boil- this is both good and bad. It is good because it cultivates patience and a more natural tea experience. However, if not used properly it might exhaust the water a bit.

I have found that to maintain the vibrancy of the water a few simple steps can be followed. First if less water is placed in the kettle it will boil relatively fast and will retain its vibrancy. Then simply add more water to the kettle every time you pour some out. This way the water always remains vibrant. Make sure that you always have water in the kettle if you are using this method else you will damage your kettle. Remove the kettle from the hot plate if you are not using the water to ensure that the water isn't over boiled.

(to be continued...)



Petr Novák said...

Hi Matt,

Thank you for sharing you personal experiences here. Inspired also by your "harmonizing water" posts I work on clay kettles and stoves – there are many tests and trials behind me. I have finally found the right clay and the right firing for stove as well as for kettle and I am happy about it. I really enjoy charcoal fire every time I find enough free time to prepare water this way. I am just still not sure about charcoal I use (still looking for the best one) and about how to light up it. You have written that you use imported charcoal. Can I ask what kind? Don't you have charcoal in Canada? And please, can I ask you how do you light up the charcoal for your tea sessions?

Thank you very much

Matt said...


It will be nice to see what you take out of the kiln!

As far as the charcoal heat goes...

One hopes to address these answers more in detail in an upcoming post, it is quite a process, an art in and of itself.

The charcoal must be a virtually odourless, fumless, non-smoking type of traditionally made hardwood charcoal. Japan and Korea have good quality charcoal suitable for the tea stove. To heat it up, it requires a propane torch- this is how the Koreans do it. For this reason it must always be lit outside with lots of ventilation.

Hope that helps for now.


Jakub Tomek said...

Hello Matt,
just wanted to ask you a thing - I do enjoy charcoal-boiled water tremendously. The interesting thing is, it not only feels more vibrant, "clean", but also noticeably thicker in mouth. Have you had the same experience? I wonder what the reason might be...
And thanks for your posts about water - I think that good water is much underestimated.

Matt said...

Jakub Tomek,

Yes, fully agree. Water boiled with charcoal has more vibrancy in the mouth. It is an amazing thing.

"I think that good water is much underestimated."

That is the main reason why one posted in such detail about water. It is a marketing thing as well. Most tea companies don't want to tell you that to drink better tea, just use better and appropriate water. Instead they would much rather sell you more expensive tea. But to be fair, many of them (in the West at least) are somewhat ignorant about the importance of water as well.

Have been enjoying your posts on "T" as of late.

Thanks for stopping by.