The Relationship Between Coffee And Water
Not all water is created equal
You might be reading this blog post and thinking to yourself, "surely water is just water." Well, we are here to tell you that you this is not the case, and the relationship between water and coffee is far more complex than most people realise. Considering that water typically comprises of more than 98% of filter coffee and 88-92% of espresso coffee, it is not surprising that the impact it has can be huge. Luckily for us, coffee can be fairly consistent and likes to play by the rules, so to begin, let's look at a few truths that apply to the relationship between water and coffee.
- If your water is inconsistent, your brews will also be inconsistent.
- If your water is bad, your brews will be bad, consistently.
- Good quality water can drastically improve your brews.
- Having one less variable in your brews allows you to more accurately tweak your recipes.
With these points in mind, let's look at what factors we need to be considering in our water in order for it to be optimised for brewing coffee.
Almost all water contains a plethora of minerals. The amount of minerals in your water is referred to as its hardness or softness; the more minerals you have in your water, the harder it is and vice versa. This is measured as the total dissolved solids or TDS; the TDS of your water tells you what percentage of your water is dissolved compounds. Minerals in your water affect your coffee's flavour in two very distinct ways: minerals have their own unique flavour characteristics and minerals have a significant impact on your ability to extract coffee from the coffee grounds.
The taste of water
Let's start off with the obvious - we've all had tap water that tastes like chlorine, and it goes without saying that we don't want coffee that tastes like a swimming pool. The most common undesirable minerals found in water are chlorine and fluoride. Their largely unpleasant, chemical flavours are often strong enough to carry through the brew and can leave lingering unpleasant flavours. High quantities of metals such as iron can also result overpowering metallic flavours in your brew.
Not all minerals in water are bad though, and no minerals (distilled water) is worse (we'll get to that in the next section). Generally speaking, magnesium and calcium will improve the taste of your water and give it more texture. When applied to coffee, these two compounds will offer distinct differences in the body of your coffee, with calcium highlighting creamier, more textured body and magnesium highlighting a brew's vibrant and acidic characteristics. Of all the minerals found in water, magnesium is definitely the one that has the most notable positive impact.
Minerals such as salt can also act as flavour enhancers, activating certain taste receptors on the palate and making the flavour experience seem more full and nuanced. It might even bring new flavours forward. Having said this, these can quickly become overpowering and only the smallest amounts are desirable.
Water's effect on extraction
Minerals in water are also essential if you want to achieve good extraction of your coffee. To put it simply, the delicious compounds in coffee need something to bond to in order to be drawn out of the coffee grounds and into your drink. Water that is too soft or distilled water will result in low levels of extraction and coffee that lacks body and character.
Having said that, more definitely doesn't always equate to better. Water for coffee is a delicate balancing act. Although the right minerals have a positive impact on brewing, flavour and extraction there is a finite limit to the amount of soluble material that can be dissolved in water - ergo, if the water is too saturated with mineral ions, there will not be enough "room" for flavour compounds from the coffee to dissolve.
Water & your equipment
Limescale can be a massive issue when it comes to maintaining your coffee equipment. Limescale is a build-up of minerals inside your equipment that can have a huge impact on how well it works as well as its longevity. Limescale can build up on your heating elements, causing your machinery to become significantly less efficient, or inside your pipes, causing inconsistencies and even blockages.
This is where the double-edged sword of calcium comes into play. Calcium can be a wonderful compound for flavour, as it adds a distinct richness and texture to your coffee, however, calcium is the number one culprit in limescale buildup in automatic coffee machines. Although calcium is potentially desirable in manual brewing, it is something that you ideally want to avoid in your machines. It seems that all water is not created equal and how you're brewing can have an impact on what water you want to use.
Regardless of whether you are using hard or soft water in your coffee machines, limescale is something to be consistently aware of; even soft water will begin to cause issues over time.
What is the solution (pun intended)
If you want the perfect water for coffee, there are a few options. Some take a little more work than others; it largely depends how much detail you're willing to go into and the amount of control you want to take.
If you fancy yourself a scientist, you can create your own water for coffee. You can experiment with adding various minerals, adjusting the TDS, tweaking the PH and creating the perfect water for your everyday brew. This option is no doubt for the extreme coffee nerd.
If this is something that interests you, the SCA has published guidelines on water for coffee, and this would be a great place to start. Check out the SCA's guidelines here.
Ion exchange filters
Ion exchange filters offer a fantastic everyday solution to improving the quality and consistency of your everyday drinking water. These filters remove unwanted chemicals and use an ion exchange to exchange minerals you don't want with minerals you do want. Essentially, the TDS of your water will remain mostly unchanged, but the compounds in the water will be far more suited to brewing tasty coffee.
We're particularly impressed by the BWT Penguin Water Filter. When stacked up against water designed specifically for specialty coffee on a cupping table, we actually found the BWT filter to offer the best tasting brew with several coffees.
Although we couldn't recommend this as a daily use case (the waste associated is astronomical), as a once off when you're out and about or on holiday, the right bottled water is a simple and accessible solution that will offer a great improvement on tap water.
It's all about the variables
Even though it might seem like an inconsequential thing, the impact of water on coffee will surprise you; everyone at CCB was quite taken aback by how much of a difference changing the water made in our HQ experiments. At the end of the day, brewing great coffee is all about managing variables; the realisation that water is not a constant (but with a little bit of work it can be) is a great step towards brewing better coffee every day.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below. We'd love to hear about your experiments and experiences with water for coffee!