Water accounts for 98.5% of volume in a cup of coffee or tea, so the water quality 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.
A second side-by-side coffee cupping highlighted the effects of different water on Peet’s Coffee & Tea Aged Sumatra. The results were the same.
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.
The second tea cupping involved Eastrise Trading Corp. Hairy Crab Oolong, which yielded similar results.
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.”
May 11, 2023 at 2:58 AM
I never realized how much of a difference customized water can make on the flavor of coffee and tea. This article opened my eyes!
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October 11, 2011 at 9:46 AM
Rio, thanks for emailing me direct. Hope the increased size of your holding tank and new backwashing filter solve your problem. You should also find a significant drop in power consumption when you get all the sediment out of the water.
October 6, 2011 at 9:53 AM
I have a Question I for Mr. David Beeman . I am using recyled water for are polishing area wish goes true a water heater in winter time and I do have a 50 MICRON filter before that anything else will glug up realy fast and our water heater only last about 1 yr.
PS say hi to Russel,Tracy and Martin
May 31, 2009 at 8:17 PM
April 17, 2009 at 10:08 AM
Tom, All due respect, Do you have any documentation on the Well? I Googled your comments extensively and I have found nothing. Also, Ammonium? What type? Ammonium can give off a urine aroma. Curious why would people travel far and wide just for water for Coffee??? Sounds like an urban myth. Can you provide proof. Thank you.
April 7, 2009 at 10:31 AM
A famous example of the effect of water quality on coffee taste is an old well in Crosby, North Dakota. People came from far and wide to get water from the well for making coffee. The State Health Department analyzed the water and found it was loaded with ammonium compounds. It seems the well was on the site of an old horst stable. The wall was condemned.
March 4, 2009 at 8:05 AM
Could there be a mistake in the statement:
“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.”
Shouldn’t it read “the softer your water is…”
January 28, 2009 at 2:32 PM
This response is From David Beeman,
First of all I would like to directly address your quote: “It’s not even gray water, but totally clean city tap water that get wasted in the RO process.” the water you are referring to contains concentrated minerals that contribute to scale build up and equipment failures. RO membranes concentrate purified or low mineral content water. The minerals the membrane rejects, the minerals that would have caused scale and equipment failures, is the water we’re talking about. That water has twice the normal mineral content but qualifies as “reuse” not recycled. RO, reverse osmosis, splits the water. Half is low mineral content half is high. The net as far as the city is concerned is zero difference because RO adds nothing but thinking of it as wasteful is incorrect. Just as you use water to wash dishes isn’t wasteful it’s fundamentally essential to get a dish clean.
ECO friendly doesn’t mean we can’t use water. Eco friendly means we use it wisely and for the biggest net effect. That’s where RO can make a difference.
Cirqua is committed to being an “ECO Friendly Co.” based on several factors. 1. We have eliminated all plastic in our packaging making it all recyclable cardboard. 2. We have a reuse system we are currently beta testing on select applications which make our units waste free or close to, all tests are not back yet. 3. Cirqua has always utilized 1:1 ratios on our equipment where possible and currently using technology to improve that ratio to 60% beyond that it is not Eco logical because replacing membranes prior to their useful life generates water usage on the production side and increased maintenance meaning fuel costs for a service call. 4. Additionally any assessment of environmentally friendly must include a holistic view of the entire life cycle. If Cirqua water protects a piece of equipment so its manufactured life is doubled or tripled how much water, energy and waste is reduced. Also with quality water, cleaning products are reduced and maintenance is reduced resulting in less fuel used by service technicians.
Low mineral content water reduces energy use in all appliances due its ability to reduce scale build up on heating elements. Some estimates put the energy savings near 30% or higher depending on the source water. Reduce energy usage and you save from 2 to 6 gallons of water for each gallon of fuel used to produce electricity and lower utility costs to the end user.
As a side story: when I first got into the water treatment business I offered to replace a hot water heater as part of a water softener sale. I knew of the energy savings a new water heater had over one scaled up and it was inline with my original goals for starting the business, change the world thru water. What I wasn’t ready for was the response I got. I received a call from a customer that had me replace two water heaters, my mistake about not explaining the offer in limited terms, three months before. She explained that her bills for gas ran around $300. a month prior, she had a huge house, and her last bill was $30. she was astounded. That was 30 years ago. How much energy has she saved since then? How much CO2 did we not create?
Everything is connected.
Bottom line is if you know that, as we do at Cirqua, and your heart is in the right place you can make a difference and we try very hard to do just that.
We are more than happy to answer specific system questions if you have any. Feel free to email me at [email protected]
January 26, 2009 at 6:31 PM
You raise some interesting questions. It would be good to hear Cirqua address your concerns. I’d like to know the reality of the situation as well. Calling David Beeman or Rod Carmer.
January 26, 2009 at 6:13 PM
I love my Cirqua water as much as the next guy, especially for coffee brewing, but I would be very uncomfortable referring to it as eco-friendly without some pretty major caveats. Reliable numbers are hard to find–maybe you could dig these up for us, Josh–but from what I understand, many reverse osmosis filtration systems (cirqua included) pour at least one gallon of city water down the drain for every gallon of customized water they produce. Sometimes (depending on the water source) the waste ratios are much worse than 1:1. One of the contributors to an reverse osmosis thread on coffeed.com cites waste up to 3:1.
Unless your cirqua system is hooked up to some kind of water recycling system, that kind of waste is hard to stomach. It’s not even graywater, but totally clean city tap water that get wasted in the RO process.
I wish it weren’t so, ’cause I’m a true believer in what these systems can do. (In addition to taste, good water also prevents scale build up and other maintenance issues in brewing equipment). The answer, I guess, is if you’re a restaurant or cafe and you want to install one of these systems, try to design and plan in advance for what you can do with the waste water. Recycle it, wash with it, send it out to the plants, whatever. Just don’t send it down the drain.
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January 22, 2009 at 7:01 PM
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January 22, 2009 at 4:27 PM
very interesting piece. i’ll keep that in mind next time I’m at intelligentsia.