Monday, March 14, 2011

Harmonizing Water and Tea: Choosing the Right Water for Tea- Part 5- Storing Water

Traditionally, spring water collected for tea always maintained a connection with the earth it was drawn from. The longer this connection with the earth is maintained, the more fresh the final tea. In the past, long, narrow, cylindrical earthenware containers were used to collect water from natural sources. These containers very much resemble antique milk cans in shape with small fluted openings on top and two eyelets on each side for which rope was strung to ease the sometimes long journey home with a heavy load of fresh water. These vessels were primarily unglazed or with just the outside glazed with full exposure of the clay to the water collected inside. This allowed for complete interaction between water and earth. This whole process brought the tea drinker closer to the earth, the water, and the nature world.

After making the trip home with this water, it was immediately emptied from its collecting jar and into a ceramic storage jar. To this day these collecting vessels are still used in Korea, sometimes if just to transport tap water to storage containers. Either way, the important connection between earth and tea is reestablished. The result is better tea.

The storage vessels they used were often glazed inside and out but were still quite breathable. Breathability is important when you are storing water. The water must be able to breathe else it will not maintain its vibrancy, and will be no good for tea. This is especially true if the water will sit for a long time. If it cannot breathe, the water will suffocate, its qi will be depleted. Water in nature breathes, and so it should in storage. Long ago they covered the opening of water storage containers with silk to maintain this connection with nature while keeping debris, dust, and sunlight from spoiling the water nurtured inside.

As water sits it becomes stagnant and its qi slowly scatters. So it is very important that the water you use for tea is either stored for a short while or stored properly. If stored properly the connection with the earth (the clay of the storage vessel) and nature (the breathability) will ensure that not only the qi of the water is maintained but that it is enhanced. This is due to the minerals in the clay of the vessel influencing the water. The older and more used the water storage vessel, the better the end results. Essentially the storage container pulls away any off tastes and odours in the water and imparts it with the elements of the clay- lightening and softening the water. Remember that clay is of the element Earth and that Earth has a moderating effect on that which it influences.

The most dramatic results are that of tap water- which is really stripped of its essence but is then nurtured back to health. It could be quite economical to simply use tap water and store it for tea in these storage jars. One teamaster in Korea did just that. The difference is astounding. Of course he used many other ways of influencing the qi of the water which will be discussed in the following parts of this series.

Because water is always interacting with the storage vessel, the raw material of the vessel is important in the maturation of the water. Glass vessels are rather neutral and don't enhance the character of the water inside. However, they also don't negatively impact the water. With that said, if water sits in a glass storage container for long enough, its qi will gradually deplete.

Nowadays almost all water containers are made of some sort of plastic. The materials for plastic will leach into the water, negatively impacting the final product. The idea of storing water is to maintain its connection with the earth and with nature. Plastics leach a range of very unnatural chemicals into water thereby degrading its qi.

The large blue 20 gallon refillable water cooler jugs are classified as #7 plastic containers. Some of these containers have been found to leach Bisphenol A into the water. Bisphenol A (BPA) is currently banned in all children's baby bottles in Canada and the EU and is increasingly being scrutinized by the government in other containers. These containers are inappropriate for storing water.

If you purchase mineral water in one of those clear plastic bottles, it may be BPA free but it will still interact with the plastics of the bottle. Checking the date the water was bottled will not only limit the exposure to the plastic but will also ensure that your water is fresh. Of course there is also the environmental consideration of the disposal of these plastic bottles.

If you do use the large blue 20 gallon jugs ensure that the water in them is fresh and consider using a old ceramic crock to dispense the water in them. This will at the very least start into motion the renaturing of the water, establishing its connection to the earth once more.

The best material for the storage container is of course, clay. Ideally the best clay would be that closest to the source of the water. This would ensure that the water's connection with the earth is maintained. If an earthenware water jar is from the same location as the water its effect is increased. If that water is used to brew local tea, its effect is once again compounded. However, most times the earth is simply not appropriate for making these vessels. If earthenware water jar is made of materials closest to where you live it also has benefits, because it will bring the imported water closer to harmony with that of the drinker- this should also be considered. If the vessel is older it will have a vibrant qi of its own, and will not only nurture the water faster but will do so more effectively.

Finally, the technique for drawing water from these water storage containers should be considered. How you draw the water will subtly impact the qi of the water. You should use gentle and graceful motions to draw the water from the storage vessel. This not only imparts the qualities of reverence for the water but also helps quite the mind for the tea session. Also it will not stir up the sediment which will settle at the bottom.

Water is usually skimmed from the top of the container. This water has had the most interaction with air and nature and because it floats on top it is imparted with the softest, lightest qi, the most yang. This water harmonizes best with lighter teas. If you wish to get a heavier water you should scoop deeper into the water storage jar, but not too deep as to stir up the sediment at the bottom. This heavier water will harmonize with the heavier teas. The tool you use to scoop the water should be bamboo such as a Japanese hishaku or a gourd such as a Korean pyo choo bak. These scoops ensure the connection with water is maintained, bamboo and gourds are also light in nature which harmonize with the water they scoop from the container. A wood scoop is also acceptable, metal should be avoided.

Most 20 gallon jugs drian (have a spout) from the bottom. To combat this place the kettle lower as to create a large stream, this adds movement and gives the water some lightness and vibrancy before boiling. Likewise, if water from the tap is used run the taps for a minute to encourage the elimination of stagnant flat water before filling up the kettle. This will ensure that the water at least has some vibrancy to it.

Most people don't consider the storage of water and how breathability and stagnancy impact the water used for tea. The breadth and quantity of the information above strikes at the importance of this often overlooked issue when preparing tea.



LTPR said...

Loving this discussion (have I mentioned that already? haha). Would really love to see some images of various water vessels, both old and new (if you happen to have access to any). Also, regarding glazed clay vessels -- you note the importance of breathability, which I understand. This probably ventures into truly geeky territory, but what of the specific glaze used? Or even the color of the glaze (a reflective white glaze, or a deep colored glaze that absorbs light)? Some glazes can contain quite hazardous elements while others are more benign, like an ash glaze. Maybe Petr could also shed some light on this matter (if you're reading this, Petr).

Matt said...


Will have to comb through old photo files to see what we can come up with.

If you follow this link:

You can see some very good examples of the Korean water storage containers by renowned Korean ceramist Kim Jeong Pil. The black and whiteish-pink storage containers are in the buncheon style of Korean pottery. While the chipped storage container with the gourd on top is in erabo style.

The black glazed collecting jar by the same artist can be seen behind the gourd. It is pretty obstructed but you can get an idea of the opening of the jars mouth as well as the eyelet on the upper corner of the jar.

If you click on that photo, it will enlarge the image slightly.


Unknown said...

Many greetings,

I'm sorry to burst in this conversation so abruptly. It just so happens that I was amazed by your knowledge on this subject, and I thought you might help me to solve a problem. I was recently in Seoul and there I bought different sorts of tea, that I now cannot identify -shame on me-. Would it be possible to show you some pictures of them, in order to get some guidance about what I brought home? I just thaught I would ask. You have a great blog by the way; thank you for sharing all this information.

Petr Novák said...

Hi Matt,

Your "water posts" inspire me to think more about my water...thanks.

Some perceptions - Some Korean potters use(d) river sand to make clay stronger during throwing, I think it not only brings more connection with water element but also helps to keep "breathability" of the pot. Breathability means lower firing temperature -it not necessarily means low firing temperature but rather lower temperature then clay needs.

-and about glazes: For storage jars in Korea as well as all around the world the most used "glaze" is clay glaze. Fine clay itself or with ash, feldspar in it(both help to melt) From those pictures from the link the first jar is most probably iron rich clay glaze, second(pinky white) mostly feldspar and the third one ash with clay(fifty fifty I guess). So in the traditional way there are no "hazardous elements" - if you know clays, stones and ashes around you.


Nicolas said...

Very good article.
Many thanks

Matt said...


Welcome to MattCha's Blog. Sure one can help you ID the tea. Just leave your email address or post a link to the pictures and one will get back to you.


Thanks so much for giving us some insight into glazes and firing temperatures and how they could effect the breatheability of water. The use of river sand is interesting too.


Glad you enjoyed it!


toki said...

Wonderful post as always. Namaste ~ Toki

This might be of interest of you:

Matt said...


Hey you had mentioned Adam in an old post of yours:

No teamasters that one had met in Korea use onggi to store water for tea. Traditionally, they were also used more as a collecting jar, where the woman would place it on their head and walk home from the water source with fresh water. Due to the shear abundance of them in Korea, there must be a reason that they are not used for this purpose? One has postulated two reasons:

If onggi was to be used for water it must only be exposed to water, not any foodstuff. The porous nature of onggi absorbs the probiotics of fermented Korean food this may very well contaminate the water. Most all old onggi would have been contaminated therefore old onggi would not be suitable for storing water.

Onggi is very porous which allows for lots of breathablity while it still remains waterproof. Is this type of storage perhaps is too breathable? The form of water storage containers usually have a relatively small opening on top. If maximum breathability was the goal then you would likely see jars that exposed more of the water to air.


Check out these Onggi water jars by famous onggi potter Bok Han Kim:


Ho Go said...


I could not see any Onggi jars in the link you gave. Is it correct?

Theoretically, Onggi would seem a good choice for water storage. If breathability is the desired feature, onggi delivers. We see this in the foodstuffs stored in them.

Cho Hak said...

It seems to me that Korean onggi would be ideal for storing water for tea. Made of earth and glazed basically with clay and ashes it is natural. Onggi also breathes unlike many other ceramic types. It has an ideal lip for tying silk across the opening, is wide mouthed for easy dipping of the water and has a substantial lid to protect the silk as well. It comes in many sizes from very small to quite large. I have knowledge of several tea ware artists who use onggi for this purpose. If your readers would like to see some onggi, the web site has many examples. I am looking forward to your opinion of the use of Korean onggi for this purpose.

Ho Go said...


Sorry I mixed up Toki's post and yours. You are the one that posted a link to onggi pots but I didn't see any at this link.

toki said...

hi Matt. I think we could be the first in the West to revive the lost uses of onggi in water storage... much to learn and recover. Happy Journey ~ Toki

Matt said...

Cho Hak,

Some teaware artists are using onggi for water. Well, theoretically it all makes sense.

What is a bit strange is that the teamasters who are not using onggi to store their water for tea definitely know about the benefits of onggi. In fact almost all use onggi as a tea storage container where they store puerh and ddokcha, and sometimes even balhyocha. These containers are ideal because they are so breathable and known for their excellent ability to promote fermentation.

Wonder if there is anyone out there with experience using these to store water for tea?

Ho Go,

Sorry the link doesn't take you directly there. You have to click on the name "Yi, Wan-Su" on the left to see all the onggi.


Cho Hak said...

Water is so important to tea and many, not all, tea ware artists also understand Tea deeply. I suspect the same is true with Tea masters. Certainly the best Tea masters will also know ceramics very well.
You are right in the use of onggi for storing various types of tea.
I invite you again to visit as another place to see onggi.

The Devotea said...

It's a shame that the best many of us can do is filtered tap water. It has no chemical taste - in stark contrast to our local tap water, which is world-famous for all of the wrong reasons - but at best, it's a flat and unappetising liquid.

Matt said...


Hope it is mostly out of convenience, cost effectiveness, and environmental responsibility that people use filtered tap water. But more than not it is because people simply accept that filtered water is "better". If drinking lighter teas, one usually chooses filtered water over tap water if no other options are available. If drinking darker teas, one usually prefers tap water as filtered water takes away too much of the depth- neither are the best situations. If you are primarily a green tea drinker, it is not as bad.

But either way the Britta jug is not a proper water storage container! Hahaha


Cho Hak said...

We started this discussion some time ago with a slight disagreement between us on the issue of using onggi for the storage of water. There is a third reason the old tea masters may not be using onggi for storing water for tea. It has nothing to do with the onggi jars being made today or the viability of onggi for the storage of water. Certainly if one were to use onggi to store water for tea, the jar must be new and never used for any other purpose.
Here is the third reason: In the mid to late 1970’s it was rumored that some onggi potters were using lead in their glazes to reduce the firing temperatures. When the national government discovered this, the practice was quickly forbidden and jars with lead in them were to be destroyed. When I interviewed onggi artists about this, in 1978-79, they all claimed that they didn’t use lead but believed that some other potters might be doing it. Today I am certain that no remaining onggi potter would use lead in his or her glaze. Still the old tea masters may remember this very short period in onggi history and continue to shy away from onggi for this purpose.
You might also know that as late as the 1990’s many American potters continued to use lead in their earthenware glazes for functional use and commercial dinnerware companies often used mono-silicate lead in its glazes. I’m not certain those practices are really dead but I hope so.
Today onggi is being used by many in Korea to store water for tea.

Matt said...

Cho Hak,

Thanks so much for coming back to this issue and giving us a greater perspective.