I’ve been neck-deep in the Chinese tea culture for the last few months, and I made a movement back to Western empiricism: I got out the cupping sets again. We devised an elaborate menu of experiments, but we didn’t get beyond comparing waters. There’s a lot to be learned.
To understand the evaluation of waters’ taste, start with Michael Mascha’s book Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters. Mascha’s 5 to 7 parameters of water characteristics are scientifically thorough, yet concisely explained. Each’s relationship to taste is made clear, with rough quantification. I would list the parameters, but apparently most of them are trademarked. You can get most of the information from his website, but it lacks much of the book’s helpful organization and charm.
The most appreciable difference in waters’ taste comes from their total dissolved solids, or the sum of minerals present in the water. (Hardness is a related concept which is specifically a measure of calcium and magnesium.) Total dissolved solids (tds) are measured in parts per million (ppm), or mg/L, which are equal. I picked up seven waters from the Pathmark that day, so I didn’t get the most prestigious specimens, but we had a wide enough range to choose from. Evian had 309 mg/L tds, while Pocono Springs had under 15. (The heftiest I’ve ever tasted is Gerolsteiner, a sparkling water with tds of 2527 mg/L.)
First we tasted a baozhong with Pocono Springs (<15) and Evian (309). We found a more balanced taste with the Pocono Springs. The Evian’s minerals made the taste discordant, although the baozhong’s floral notes came a little farther forward. “It may taste good, but it’s wrong,” remarked Brandon. He characterized the effect of excess minerals as “saccharine.” We replaced the Evian with Deer Park (90) to make the difference more subtle. Some could still taste a difference between the Deer Park and the Pocono Spring, but some could not. In any case, the difference between the first and second infusions was more noticeable, with the second broadening the flavors.
We used the same contrasting waters to brew high-fired Dong Ding. In this trial, the high-mineral water was generally thought to be a better match with the strong flavors of the tea. The Pocono Spring water was a sweet, soft baseline, which created the sensation of empty space in the flavor profile. “It’s acceptable,” remarked Brandon, but the Evian added another dimension of quality.
All this scientific rigor was exhausting, so we unwound with some Ali San and loose shou pu-erh, both deliciously aged. Credit for the mellow atmosphere also goes to Landlord Ali, who recently resurfaced the fire escape.