coffee's second most important ingredient - water

September 22, 2011

Water – how important is it for coffee?  The answer is both clear to me and not clear to me.  If your water tastes terrible then it will not be good for coffee.  Espresso only has two ingridients – coffee and water, so if one of them tastes bad the end product should taste bad, too.  


The ultimate write up on water is called “the insanely long water FAQ” which not too surprisingly is really, really long.  I will not try to reproduce its depth here, but I will summarize some of the important points.  


First of all distilled water does not make for good espresso.  The water hardness helps the coffee bond to the water and therefore is necessary for the best flavor.  Distilled water should lead to flat tasting water.  


If you wan to have the perfect water it should be moderately hard – roughly 90 plus mg/L of water when checked on a TDS meter (another coffee toy you can buy for less than $20).  On the other hand the harder the water is the harder it is on your espresso machine, leading to scale.  Thus most people are led to try to strike a balance between water that is hard enough for good espresso and yet soft enough not to destroy your expensive machine.  Something in the ballpark of 90 -100 mg/L is a reasonable goal.  


If your water is harder than this you should almost certainly filter it and soften it to protect your machine or else used bottled water.  I would rather err on the side of water too soft than too hard, but I recommend trying the espresso with harder and softer water and seeing how the taste difference strikes you .  This is, of course, hard to do scientifically because unless you have two identical machines you are unlikely to have a perfect recall of the first set of shots by the time you have drained the boiler refilled it, reheated the machine, pulled shots hopefully in the exact same manner, … (this is why I have never tried to do a scientific taste test of water in coffee).  


My own taste tells me that water is important, but if you keep it in the middle ranges it is okay to have it a little on the soft side.


If you want designer water it is available, too, for about one dollar a gallon, water not included (and no I am not kidding).

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