Impact of Customized Water on Coffee and Tea
Water accounts for 98.5% of the volume in a cup of coffee or tea, so the quality of the water you use is important. Toward that end, David Beeman founded The Water System Group 31 years ago “to help the world through water.”
The Southern California native began by building residential reverse osmosis filtration systems. 20 years ago, Beeman formulated water for a West L.A. pizzeria after a native New Yorker didn’t get the desired rise in his crust. For the past 15 years, Beeman’s been reformulating water for commercial coffee, tea and baking. Not only has Beeman’s focus changed, but so has his company’s name. Seven years ago, an employee branding session yielded a new name – “Cirqua” – which means “circling the world with water.”
16 years ago, when Starbucks opened their first Los Angeles coffeehouse on Main Street in Santa Monica, the company switched from water with low mineral content (Seattle’s agua) to high mineral content (Santa Monica’s own). Beeman understood the value of consistency, so he set up a tasting at the Main Street location with Starbucks coffee expert Kevin Knox. Beeman made two cups of coffee, one using Santa Monica water and another using customized water. Knox literally spat out the coffee made with Santa Monica water. Since then, Beeman has worked with Starbucks to develop a custom water formula that you can now find in over 7,000 Starbucks across the planet. According to Beeman, “Seattle water is too low in mineral content to produce the ideal cup of coffee,” so they “enhanced minerals to create a much better cup.”
Cirqua now formulates water for most large coffee companies, including Starbucks, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and It’s a Grind. Locally, they formulate water for Intelligentsia, City Bean, Fix Coffee Co. in Echo Park and Kean Coffee in Newport Beach. The “stealth company” recently landed “coffee program” accounts with The Cheesecake Factory and Claim Jumper. “They each have a slightly different profile,” says Beeman. Cirqua formulates water for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), World Tea Expo and all of the barista competitions. Beeman’s company also formulates water for bakeries and pizzerias, but I’ll cover that in another post.
“In the water industry, they equate high purity with high quality,” says Beeman, “You want to add minerals back into create flavor. Without minerals, there’s no chemical reaction with coffee, tea or bread.”
Cirqua makes equipment that formulates water, but as Beeman says, “We don’t sell equipment. We sell a water profile.” To better understand the impact of Cirqua’s customized water, Beeman treated me to instructional coffee and tea cuppings.
He started with a medium roast Guatemalan coffee from Starbucks. Beeman brewed three different cups of coffee using the same weight and the same grind (halfway between “drip” and “French press”), all using the pour-over method with Melitta filters. The only variable: the water. Sample A: Reverse Osmosis water with low mineral content. Sample B: Ventura County water with high mineral content. Sample C: Cirqua customized water.
While waiting for the coffee to cool to 175 degrees, Beeman predicted the outcome, which turned out to be accurate. Sample A (right): “high level of astringency, bitter.” Sample B (middle): “muted flavor, muddied.” Sample C (left): “able to bring out the entire profile, highs and lows.” With Sample B, the tap water with high mineral content, an unappetizing film forms on top of coffee and tea.
Beeman pointed out that when brewing espresso with different water samples, the flavor differences are enhanced. Bitterness and muddiness are maximized.
For the first tea cupping, Beeman brewed Tazo Black Tea. The tea cuppings were probably even more informative, since they highlighted the differences in flavor, color and clarity. Beeman said this becomes especially important with iced tea, which has “the highest profit margin of any item in a restaurant. [With] enhanced flavor and clarity, you sell more iced tea.”
Sample A had the lightest color, since Reverse Osmosis water doesn’t contain enough minerals to react with tea and develop color. Again, Sample A produced the most astringency. Another surprise: the tea bag sank to the bottom of the pot.
Sample B – Ventura County tap water – produced cloudy tea. “In iced tea it will look absolutely horrible,” said Beeman. The color was the boldest, since the water contained the most minerals, leading to enhanced chemical reactions. The tea bag hovered in the middle of the pot. Due to high mineral content, a film formed on top of the tea, resembling an oil slick.
Sample C – Cirqua customized water – produced the boldest flavor, with no cloudiness. The tea bag floated to the surface, which hosted no film.
Beeman pointed out another important factor when brewing coffee or tea: pH levels. That factor is not important with coffee, since the acidity in coffee is so strong it will overcome any pH change. However, that’s not the case with tea.
Water quality varies across L.A. and it changes seasonally, but that doesn’t matter with formulated water, which is the same every time.
Home water filters like Brita remove visible solids, aromas and chlorine flavor, but it won’t substantially alter the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) – the mineral content of water, good and bad. Cirqua’s Rod Carmer used a meter to measure TDS of four water samples. From tap, Camarillo water measured 638 parts per million. From Ventura, it was 1225 parts per million. Reverse Osmosis: 8.5 ppm. Seattle: 45 ppm. Cirqua Customized water is normally around 150, measured 147.7 ppm. According to Beeman, “If you want to create the best cup of coffee,” he prescribes:
80 ppm Total Hardness
150 ppm Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)
40 ppm alkalinity (bicarbonate)
0 ppm Iron
Doug Zell currently uses customized water at Intelligentsia, and according to West Coast head of operations Kyle Glanville, the upcoming Venice location will take the approach to another level. For Venice, Cirqua will help to formulate three different waters: for coffee brewing, tea brewing and espresso brewing. “The way the reactions are catalyzed are a little different,” says Glanville. “The system we have is a reverse osmosis system that reformulates the water after it strips it, reformulates it with minerals. There are a couple metrics we use to measure water, TDS (Total Dissolve Solids) and Hardness…With coffee, the harder your water is, the less extracted your coffee gets and the more soapy and minerally it gets. We don’t want to be at the mercy of L.A. water.”
Fix owner Marc Gallucci uses Cirqua customized water for all the coffee, espresso and tea at his Echo Park coffeehouse. “It’s all about water hardness and Total Dissolved Solids (or TDS),” says Gallucci. “An R.O. system like Cirqua’s first takes everything out of the water (meaning no need for a water softener) then blends clean city water back in to provide the perfect TDS for optimal extraction of the Soluble Solutions in the coffee and tea.”
Gallucci readily concedes the importance of water quality, but also stresses that “temperature is also super critical for coffee and tea. Water should be around 198 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit for best extraction.”
Cirqua’s AB Formulator remineralizes water to exact level, transforming water with low mineral content or R.O. water. LP 500 produces 500 gallons a day, stripping everything out of the water, so you can control exactly what you put back. It’s possible to program TDS within 4 to 5 parts per million.
Beeman is committed to making Cirqua an eco-friendly company, eliminating plastic packaging and using reusable cartridges in equipment. Cirqua is also beginning to reformulate water for restaurants, so businesses can reduce bottle waste.
Cirqua is also prepping to sell their “formula” for home use. Take a gallon of Reverse Osmosis or distilled water, then pour in 7ml of A and 7 ml of B. They’re separated so they don’t chemically react. Pour both into the water to duplicate the coffeehouse experience. They’re distributing it for the first time at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference in April. Then it will be available in coffeehouses, “to get the same coffee profile at home, which we believe will enhance bean sales.”