There’s something in the water … but what is it?

The entire time I have been paying attention to the quality of the coffee I drink both at home and out ‘n’ about, there has always been a moveable feast of brew methods, techniques and various other theories regarding any number of the many variables that go into producing a good cup of coffee. I understand (I’m a snob, after all … at least when it comes to coffee). This almost obsessive focus of the coffee industry on the best method of brewing represents a reasonable amount of attention when you think of brewing as the final stage in a series of stages that form a long line, from producer to roaster, which is marked by fanatical attention to detail and quality. You don’t want to screw it up. It’d be almost irresponsible.

The one variable that has not been as subject to the whims of fashion is water. Filtered. Always filtered. From Peet’s to Blue Bottle, to Stumptown. Read the pamphlets and ask the people behind the counter and you can count on it: filtered water. But I’m starting to wonder weather this is always the best advice.

This post is actually a long time coming but I have never felt as if I had the experience and knowledge required to write about water quality and I have never known who to ask about the subject. I still don’t. But this is the internet, after all, where that experience and knowledge can be but a comment post away from you. And my latest experience playing with my new toy has only brought up the issue anew. In fact, It always happens when (funnily enough) I begin playing with a new brew method. I think it’s because my senses are especially piqued when I’m trying to dial it in.

Most recently it has cropped up again since I picked up one of the much-lauded Hario V60 drippers. I purchased it at Oakland’s Remedy in Temescal and since they use Ritual and since I needed some beans I picked out a Costa Rica. As it was a Costa Rica I was not surprised that it would pack a pronounced acidity. And so it did. But after I picked up my next bag of coffee – a bag of Guatemala Concepción Pixcaya – while I was visiting Four Barrel in San Francisco, brought it home and brewed up a batch on the V60, I thought something was amiss. It was too harsh. It was pronounced. What to change, then? Grind? Dose? Maybe, I thought, it was water temperature. But I thought about the other times I had used water straight from the tap. Most recently it was while I was house-sitting in San Francisco, without the aid of a water filter. I thought about how silky smooth the Four Barrel Kirimara Peaberry (which I picked up at Modern Coffee in Oakland) was. I remembered that I had wondered what, if any, effect San Francisco’s water had on that coffee. I never go the chance to find out. It was too good and I finished the bag before we came back home. But there have been other times and other coffees and other opportunities and I have been amazed at how simply switching from filtered to tap has changed the flavor of a particular coffee. Many times it has been for the better. Now I wonder what that Costa Rica might have tasted like with the water filter switched off.

What (I think) I know:

  • The flavor compounds in coffee are water soluble
  • There are many aspects of water that affect its ability to extract those compounds (temperature is only one)
  • Those aspects control not just how many of the compounds are available for extractions but, more precisely, which ones.
  • At my house, switching from filtered water to tap can change a coffee’s flavor dramatically

So, I suppose, some questions (calling all at-home coffee brewing aficionados):

  • Does anyone else have a similar experience?
  • Have you tried the water from your tap?
  • What are your experiences?

And for the coffee professionals … well … whatta ya know? Let ‘er rip:

  • Does anyone know what a home water filter is taking out that is affecting a coffee’s flavor to such a great extent?
  • Why is it that everyone seems to recommend filtered water? Is it to level the playing field? To give us all at least one common variable?
  • What if, though, it doesn’t do justice to your product?
  • Is there some way to gain knowledge of a particular area’s water quality and to recommend brewing parameters accordingly?
  • If I go so far as to have my water tested what am I looking for and how do I apply what I find to my brewing?
  • How does one even go about having their water quality tested in the first place?
  • Should I even bother?

That elipses at the end of the list above? It’s symbolic of why it is that I haven’t posted about this before: more questions than answers. And these aren’t even the half of them, especially considering my certainty that as soon as even one of the above questions are answered, that answer is bound to prompt a slew of other questions.

But don’t let that stop you …

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One thought on “There’s something in the water … but what is it?

  1. I totally agree that the water can make a huge difference in taste (obviously, or professionals wouldn't be using filtered water), but I discovered during my cuppings a few years ago, that the coffee brewed with my tap water was actually better than the bottled or filtered water that I'd always been told to use. It has always bothered me that bottled water has a negative environmental impact and didn't really seem to taste all that much better than tap, so I was quick to switch to using tap for all my coffee. I started using tap water in my espresso machine too and it tastes great. However, I do know, from having looked at the water reports from EBMUD, that East Bay water is fairly soft and free of minerals, tasting cleaner than water from other areas. So perhaps I am just lucky to live in an area where the tap water is fine for brewing coffee, beer, and just plain drinking!

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