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Water for Coffee. My journey with H2O.

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

I love coffee and finding out what works by exploring the options to come across the best flavours that I can get from my favourite coffees. I drink mainly filter pour-over style black coffees. These to me have the most intriguing delicate and complex tastes which I love to experience. This thought process took me to source the right water to use. The reason for this, as I understood it pre-barista years was, water is basically 98% of the filter coffee. Making it probably one of the most crucial components of delicious brews next to coffee.

And so I played about with different waters. To try and make delicious coffees and over the last few years, I’ve sometimes stumbled across great matches. Most of my experimentation at the start was trying to find the right bottled water for coffee. I read that Volvic was an excellent choice and so started using that with some success. However, Volvic tended to highlight the acidity and more vibrant flavours in the coffees. Which could oversaturate the taste on occasion and I’d lose out on some of the more delicate flavour notes.

I also tried a Brita filter for my tap water to see if it made a more flavourful coffee. This sometimes worked well. Other times it did not really let the coffees show off their real potential. Which I felt was so to speak, locked inside.

The idea behind all this, was for me, that better-tasting water equalled better-tasting coffee. This made sense to me and still does. If the main ingredient tastes good, shouldn’t this translate to a better overall tasting coffee?

Becoming a full-time barista and reading mainly the ‘Water’ chapter from the coffee godfather James Hoffmann led me to start sourcing bottled water with a certain chemical composition. Like less salt and as close to pH neutral as possible. The right balance of minerals are needed, for example, potassium and magnesium. Including searching for water with the right amount of bicarbonate or water hardness. Then if this isn’t getting confusing the TDS would need to be not too high but also not too low.

This took me first on a bottled water hunt in south Portugal, this now being my home. Volvic, not to my surprise hit some of these targets. However, it was difficult to find. Portuguese bottled water on offer was the next port of call. I went around supermarkets reading labels and checking them against my new found knowledge of water. Often realising the cheapest and house bottled waters would be the most matching. For example, Naturis from Lidl, Amanhecer water from local small mini-markets and Porsi Aqua from Intermarche, for those who live here and also want to experiment please try and let me know. Again, I was brewing some good coffees and falling upon some great matches with coffee and water. Allowing some coffees to really shine and others, what felt like, that it kinda fell short of what could be obtained in regards to potential flavour.

I don’t want to miss mentioning that the tastes I’m getting could be how I’m brewing. The style and all the other factors involved in extracting delicious coffee. I could have used too many pours or swirled too little, maybe brewed at too low of a temperature or hadn’t dialled in my grind size.

Still from my experience, having a decent water to brew with has allowed me a sure hope or shining beacon so to speak in the pour-over coffees I make. I feel that even if I don’t get the factors mentioned above spot on, with the appropriate water I can taste the potential. If the coffee is great and roasted well then with good water the coffee begins to shine.

Lately, I started nerd-ing out extra hard on the water and came across Matt Perger’s brainchild, Barista Hustle and his excellent research on all things coffee. The article and chapter ‘DIY water recipes’ was another step in my water journey. Being able to create the “perfect” water for coffee and control the water variables. This led me to go out and buy 3 ingredients to level-up my coffee game. Baking Soda, is used as a Buffer. Epsom salts, my magnesium component and De-ionised / Distilled water (Pure Water), the base to add the ingredients.

By creating these two solutions with the Bicarb and Epsom salts, I was able to create different waters by adding these solutions in different amounts to the Pure water. I currently play around with these water recipes and occasionally make my own. Resting upon the ‘barista hustle water’ and ‘Rao water’ as the two I mostly use.

I enjoy the coffees I make with this style of water, it really allows the coffees to showcase their potential. It allows a level playing field for the coffee to be tasted how, I imagine, is intended to taste by the roaster. Yet, to me underneath the coffee flavours, I taste a kind of chemical, unnatural taste, which doesn’t necessarily ruin the coffee. Still, I’m able to taste that I used water that I have made with limited ingredients. This isn’t water that has occurred naturally in nature. In addition, going back to an earlier point on taste importance. This water when drunk without coffee doesn’t taste great. It’s very flat and lifeless, chemically and not satisfying.

This makes me ask the following questions; Is the taste of the water or its chemical composition the most important factor of water for coffee? Can, naturally occurring great-tasting waters match up to certain coffees with naturally occurring compositions? Allowing the flavours of the coffee to really be expressed and tasted alongside the great-tasting water used to brew with.

Or can we design the perfect water for all coffees? Or does each coffee need a certain design of water to showcase its flavours? Or can the chosen water design or naturally occurring water used highlight certainly want flavours of the coffee brewed?

And for my next chapter, I bought a Lotus Water set. This has 4 different components to add to ‘pure water’ allowing more experimentation and water designs to brew with.

The mind boggles but the exploration continues.

I’ll keep you posted…

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