Water Quality: Why Does it Matter?

Over my years in and around coffee I have noticed that certain questions will come up pretty regularly. So given that this is the case I am going to start a new strand of articles which try to address these recurring questions as clearly as possible.

In each case I will start with a summary of the answer I think is most generally useful, and then later go into some more detail. Hopefully this will allow you to choose the depth of answer for yourself. Plus you can select just how much “Bear” you want in one sitting.

The question this time is…

“Hey, Bear. What water should I be using to make my coffee?”

Yes, really. I get asked this a lot, and it’s a really important topic. One that is all too often forgotten. Water makes up more than 90% of your coffee, so it is the largest single ingredient in brewing. As a result we should be thinking about it, probably more than we do. Anyway on to my answers…

Bear’s Quickfire Answer

When brewing coffee always use the cleanest tasting and best quality water you have access to.

If possible filtered water from a fridge jug (Brita, BWT or Peak for example) is ideal at home.

Why?: The Short Form

– Water makes up the majority of your coffee and so avoiding any issues with taste is really important.

– Tap water contains a number of components, some of these are not desirable, and can negatively impact your final results.

– A simple home water filter can generally reduce these issues well enough to allow for great home brewing.

– In major cities, London I am looking at you, this is even more important, as the quality of water is often very poor.

– You can check the quality of your water through the website of your service provider. Water reports are publicly available.

Why: In More Depth

Lets learn all about water and how it changes the flavour of your coffee…

No really. I’m not kidding. Fair warning this falls firmly into the “in more detail” category of my work. While I am going to try to explain as simply as I can, this is a topic that can seem very geeky! 

Water makes up over 90% of our drink, so in fact it’s the main ingredient of a good coffee. As a result we should be aware of it’s provenance just as much as we are of that of the coffee beans we are using. 

First off, let’s address the obvious question. 

“Water is water. Just a vehicle for my coffee surely?”

Well, as is so often the case, this is not as true as you might expect.

The ingredients of your coffee, one of which is often overlooked!

What is in Water?

Oh come on! Really? Actually, yeah really. This is a more important question than you may think. The water you are using to make coffee is most likely not just water, it’s water and a bunch of other stuff. Unless it’s chemically purified, water contains H2O and a bunch of minerals.

I am not going to turn this into a science lesson, for a couple of good reasons. Firstly I am not qualified to explain it in full, though I know a couple of folks who are, and I am pretty well versed. Secondly, and much more importantly, it would be excessively complex and quite dull. 

This second fact is actually a killer in my work, when I am trying to engage professional and home brewers in the discussion of water standards. While some may find the chemistry deeply fascinating (here’s a secret… even I don’t find it that interesting, I just acknowledge the importance of it) others will very quickly get turned off by too much detail. As a result the importance of water standards gets missed, a lot.

A good basic understanding is all you really need. So here are a few quick points to know for the interested home brewer or coffee pro. 

– The mineral content of water changes its flavour.

– The same factors will impact the flavour of any drink made with that water.

– Most household water is not ideal for brewing straight out of the tap.

– Mineral content can be controlled with filter systems, or even artificially created with minerals and pure water.

Why it Matters: Water & Flavour

So first off let’s be clear, the composition and quality of water absolutely does affect the coffee you brew with it. Water has taste.

If you want to experience this, get some different bottled waters, some from your tap and perhaps some purified (but critically drinking safe!) water and taste them just like you would coffee. You will find changes in mouthfeel, flavour and aftertaste.

So we know that these factors exist and will therefore likely translate to our brew. What then do we do about the undesirable elements (pun entirely intended for you science fans), can we limit or remove them? Well let’s find out.

Just UsePure Water?

This point comes up a lot, it is possible to acquire drinking safe purified water. So why not just use this and keep it simple. The answer is a rather annoying one, this water is too pure. I’m not playing with you here, it really is.

The reason this is the case is that water this pure lacks any mineral content and that causes it to be a pretty poor vehicle for extraction. Now once more the science here could fill a paper, in fact it has… several. I am going to keep this really simple though. 

When it comes to water for brewing, some degree of impurity is actually desirable, so much so that you can buy kits or find recipes to create the perfect combination of minerals in water for coffee brewing. I have found that, against my usual level of transparency in education and training its best to advise people to just accept the truth of this, unless they want to go digging for their own curiosity. 

What is in the Right Water?

So here I get to lean into other folks’ hard work which makes me happy. Now this doesn’t mean I haven’t done my homework, over the years I have played about with a lot of waters, wow there is a very unique sentence, and have some pretty specific views on water composition and brewing. But for the sake of simplicity, we have some decent guidelines courtesy of the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association). They look like this…

I’m sorry… What now?

Ah chemistry, it’s like marmite, though I personally dislike marmite, and shockingly like chemistry. I will try to break this down folks.

Odour is pretty self explanatory, we want water to smell clean and fresh, or indeed largely of nothing. “Olfactory Determination” is the accepted method of measure here. Yes it’s exactly what it sounds like, no fancy kit to play with sadly, just have a sniff. 

Chlorine content. We really don’t want our brew water to contain chlorine, this can be tested for with a pretty simple chemical reaction. To do this you can just get a simple home “dip strip” water test kit, and get solid results, or check your water report (discussed below). 

Calcium Hardness, Alkalinity & pH. I have no desire to go into the science behind the optimal values, suffice to say its sound work. These numbers can also be established with a water testing kit, which is great news. 

These numbers are the recommendation for brewing water from the SCA and if you are looking to up the water game in your coffee they are great to shoot for. But it does take a little work. 

Water Testing & Info

With the numbers above you have a target to aim for, but how do you find out where you are starting from? You have two solid options. 

Firstly and by far my recommended choice, is to pop to the website of the company that provides your water supply. There you will be able to find a water quality report for your area and can look to compare the information with the numbers from the SCA. This of course is only my experience in the UK, if you are elsewhere the regulations and availability may be different. 

– Sample page from a water report. These are available through your supplier.

Your second choice is to order a water testing kit and run it yourself. These are easily available and can vary from a simple strip test with colour coding to full blown digital readouts. The more basic ones are not usually expensive, and are pretty user friendly.

Water testing kits are available.

Ok Ok! Test done and we have some contaminants. So what do we use?

Unless you are very fortunate (so much so that if you are, please drop me a line to say where you are) you will find that you do have some level of notable variance from the ideal standards in your home water, and so you may want to look at how to address that. This can sound daunting, so I’ll try to help. 

If you are at a roastery or lab there is probably little point in my saying anything. But you should be, and most likely are, using water to these standards or above already! 

If you are a cafe or other venue, then you may well already have a filtration system in place. If so then my best advice is to keep it well maintained. If not you probably should consider one, feel free to drop us a line here if you want to consider some external advice.

For the home brewer this is more complicated, and your mileage may vary. I certainly wouldn’t suggest a full filtration system at home, unless you make a LOT of coffee every day. But you probably should think about how to ensure good water quality, there are a few choices.

There are plenty of water filtering options.

Bottled Water

I have known people to use bottled waters to brew at home, and there is some merit to this method. Firstly the water will have its content recorded on the packaging so you know what you are getting. Second, it’s quick and easy, as you don’t need to do anything to the water.

The biggest issue is the spiralling cost, buying that much bottled water is not cheap. Even if you can source at a manageable price, there is the question of environmental impact, disposable packaging is a real issue.

Home Filters

This is probably the solution I would most often advocate. A good number of these jugs with filter cartridges are on the market, offerings from companies like Brita and BWT come highly recommended. You do need to pay for the initial setup and then cartridges when you need them, but they are not usually insanely expensive.

That said you can also get the Peak water filter unit, which is specially designed for high quality coffee brewing water. It is more expensive than a standard household unit, but it also offers greater control, if you want it. 

Making Your Own

Not a joke, I promise. This is actually an option. You can acquire home safe pure water and purchase the various elements you want to have in your water. By doing so you can build your “perfect” brew water every time. Indeed you can purchase recipe kits that do this for you, just get some pure water, add them and mix in the right volumes and you have total control.

This option is definitely for the serious brewer, as it requires a lot of effort and some skill, but the resulting water quality is as assured as you are likely to get.

Science Bear. Signing off.

Closing Out

Alright so there you have it, the long, the short and the really short answer to the first of what I hope will be a series of common coffee query’s. 

Hopefully this information was of some use to you, wherever you are in your brewing journey. We’d love to hear your views and feedback, and to the questions you’d most like to have answered. So please hit us up on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, drop us an email or comment below!

For now, enjoy good coffee and I’ll see you next time!

About Bear Essentials Coffee

If you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support my work.

Thanks, – Bear

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