While outdoor temperatures might belie the season, Winter is finally in full swing here on the North Coast. That means fielding inquiries from folks wondering why the coffee they enjoyed in the Fall doesn’t taste the same now.
We haven’t changed a thing. But no matter where you are, if you notice changes in how your coffee and foods taste as temperatures fall and rise with the seasons, or even day-to-day, what likely has changed is how your local water company treats your water.
Fact is, every cup of coffee you drink is more than 98 percent water. You can start with the most carefully and skillfully grown, processed and roasted coffees but if your tap water tastes off, or outright bad, you've lost the flavor battle before the first sip. Similarly, if the water is very hard or soft, its mineral content affects everything you make with it. In general, hard water contains higher levels of magnesium, calcium and bicarbonate, among others, all of which can contribute to a more bitter cup. On the flip side, soft water’s low mineral levels tend to result in very bland flavors.
Fortunately, there are fixes for most complaints. Choices, ranked by cost, include:
Here on the South shore of the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest source of fresh water, we’re fortunate to enjoy great tasting water pretty much year-round. That said, Lake Erie's headline-grabbing Summer algae blooms can bring bad tastes, odors, even toxins to the tap. Winter brings its own set of flavor challenges as treatment facilities adjust their treatments to cope with the underlying changes in the supply water.
For many, particularly those with very hard water, rural or well water, whole house filtration is often the only reasonable option. It's pricey, but it opens up the possibility of custom designing the chemistry of all the water your family uses on a daily basis. Professionally installed, such systems typically include a detailed water analysis and hardware and chemical solutions designed to improve the overall quality of your water, whether used for brewing, drinking, bathing or washing.
A low cost effective solution, and the one we use at Windward Coffee, is the installation of a quality under-sink filter system in our "coffee lab" (most folks call it a kitchen). Used for all our brewing and cooking needs, it’s made significant improvements in our food and beverages. It's also economical when compared to the alternative of buying bottled water — even after factoring in the cost of replacing filters every six months. And, since our filtered water is only used for brewing, cooking and drinking, we don’t spend money on unnecessarily treating wash water and the like.
Sink top filter systems are also available. These are often plumbed in just like their under-sink brethren, but filtration takes place in a sinktop filter holder. They can be reasonably priced and effective, but take up valuable real estate on the counter that might better be taken up by that new grinder or expresso machine you’ve been eyeing. Priorities people!
Finally, “portable” filters, such as Brita, are an option, particularly if you don’t need a lot of water at once. The downside to these devices is that they take up a bunch of space and over time, you'll spend a whole bunch of money replacing their very pricey filters.
It only makes sense to use the cleanest, best tasting water you can. But you also want to be sure it hasn’t been filtered and purified to death. By that I mean you should avoid distilled, reverse osmosis (RO) or any kind or brand of filtered bottled water for making coffee and cooking. In addition to adding to the plastic waste stream, their processing removes most, if not all of the trace mineral content needed to release coffee’s flavors. Brew with them and you’ll likely be greeted by a flat, flavorless cup of warm brown water.
Just one clarification here and that is yes, you can use RO, but be sure to buy and consistently add the correct amount of re-mineralizer solution to restore the necessary trace elements before brewing. RO systems are often the first stage in whole house systems, in which case the specialist who designs your system will make the appropriate adjustments in formulating your water.
If your only option is store-bought water, choose only natural spring water for brewing and cooking. Unlike nearly every other water on the shelf, it hasn’t been stripped of those all-important minerals.
For an in-depth, geek-level look at the subject, head over to the American Chemical Society's site for a look at this study. You'll find a brief and much more accessible plain English discussion here.