"It's The Water..."
Improving Coffee and Tea Taste
BY TIMOTHY J. CASTLE
As almost everyone in the coffee business has said, more than once, water is by far the biggest component of a cup of coffee - so if it’s not right, the coffee can’t be. The water treatment business and the business of developing means for assessing water quality are perceived as areas both primed for growth and underdeveloped. And, given the coffee market’s continued troubles, water may not only be the largest component of a cup of coffee but the most expensive as well.
Each water expert interviewed for this article addressed the water-as-primary-ingredient issue in their own particular way. What emerged is a portrait of an industry in transition from that of one selling filters to a diverse industry selling solutions to a number of different water quality challenges. Timothy J. Castle reports.
The Chester Paul Company, located in Glendale, California, is a distributor of water filtration components. They don’t sell systems, but they do sell to companies that manufacture complete systems. John Heurkins, general manager, speaks about their systems and how they can be used to improve taste quality of beverages. “We use mostly, point-of-use filtration systems for reverse osmosis, which is a method of purifying water. The products we carry and the manufacturers we represent do have application in the foodservice market because, obviously, whether it’s soft drinks or tea or coffee or juice, the major proponent of that finished product is water. If it’s done right, it is treated before it’s mixed.... The overall water quality is the major issue. You don’t take a big jug of Arrowhead water and mix it. So basically what every outlet is challenged with is what they need to do to treat that water and what’s in that water.
“Prior to the brewer, there is usually some sort of water treatment, and obviously the quality of the city water varies; depending on what’s in the water and how bad that water is, you have to treat it. In the worse case, you’ve got chlorine, for the most part, in large metropolitan areas that are fed from aqueducts. You have to take the chlorine out because chlorine imparts taste.”
But Heurkins says water treatment is not always about removal of elements in water. “Not everything in water is bad. There are some nutrients in water, and when you take out all the bad stuff, you can take out all the good stuff - and then oftentimes you have to reintroduce nutrients back into the water system after you’ve purified it so well.”
Heurkins spoke to a recurring theme, that of customizing systems to meet the needs for particular kinds of water treatment with particular customers.
The Water Treatment Group of Stay-Rite Industries, headquartered in Delavan, Wisconsin, has been manufacturing point-of-use water filtration products for over 20 years. Dennis Roberts, regional sales manager, says there are a couple of different ways his services can benefit beverage retailers. One simply has to do, or course, with taste. “Within the coffee, tea, and commercial foodservice industry, with regards to the water treatment, there are two basic things you’re looking to do. You’re looking to preserve your equipment, primarily from lime-scale build-up and corrosion. And you’re also looking to improve the quality of the water used to make the beverage. Of course, coffee and tea are made up primarily of water, so if you’ve got water quality issues, that typically impacts the beverage itself.”
“In tea, since it’s something you can actually see through, any kind of sediment in the water is going to make an impact on how that beverage looks. Tea is more susceptible to variations in water quality because it’s a somewhat lighter-tasting beverage. So chlorine primarily is one of the things you want to take out of the water before you use it to brew tea. A lot of the bigger beverage companies are coming out with tea-in-a-box, where they’re actually mixing a tea like they would mix a soda fountain drink - the tea is a concentrated in a box and it’s mixed with water and dispensed through dispensing equipment. Well, that kind of smacks the face of traditional tea brewing. That’s where water quality becomes extremely important - in those kinds of applications.... I hesitate to say [removing chlorine] is less important with coffee than with tea, but the reality is that these coffee brews can be really robust in taste and can mask, to some extent, imperfections in water quality.”
The second concern with water involves its effect on machinery. “Any of the brewing equipment used to make these beverages are highly susceptible to issues related to water quality, specifically buildup of lime-scale, or hardness in the water. And you change the temperature of the water, whether you’re heating or cooling, which causes the minerals in the water to come out, and they stick to surfaces of the equipment.” He says this can be a real money-saving issue for some business owners: “Take, for example, someone running an office coffee service that has equipment that they’ve placed in these installations at their own expense. They want to do everything they can to limit service calls, limit downtime, limit issues related to equipment failure because obviously these all have an impact to the overall cost of the installation.” He says to do that, most of the people running these kind of programs do some kind of filtration to reduce those kinds of issues. “Typically, you can do one or two things,” he says. “Most prevalent is the use of what’s called a polyphosphate. Polyphosphate is a mineral material, it’s basically a silicon that has a set dissolution rate and what it does is, coats the downstream distribution system with a really thin film - it doesn’t build up on its self - but what it does is it keeps the minerals in the water. So the minerals can’t come out and stick. You can also physically remove the minerals. For example, you get into some of these higher-end espresso machines, and the openings and the equipment can be so small that you have to take the minerals out entirely, otherwise no matter what you do, you’re going to have issues with clogging - the valves will stay open, the equipment doesn’t function properly, and that costs money.
“So to protect the equipment and to improve the water used to make the beverage, it’s really two simple things. Carbon for the chlorine taste and odor. And some kind of mechanical filtration for the particulates and phosphate to use as a lime-scale inhibitor or a softening resin that will remove the minerals from the water. These basic media can be put in a lot of different vessels, shall we say. A small coffee brewing system would use a small filter using carbon and phosphate and you can actually design whole restaurant filtration solutions that simply have higher flow rates and more carbon and phosphate in these larger size vessels.”
James Marcotte, director of marketing at the Water System Group in Camarillo, California, spoke about the details to which his company pays attention when selling filtration systems to specific customers. “We’ve basically developed systems primarily for the coffee industry, coming from the perspective that there are two problems that need to be solved. First is that water is a primary ingredient in a cup of coffee or cup of tea - and a certain water chemistry provides the right atmosphere for appropriate extraction of coffee, since water happens to be a municipal resource which has a variety of different qualities throughout the U.S. We assess what the water is like for our prospective customer and then, based upon what that water quality is, we match a system for what they need. We make a certain assumption - that water within a certain TDS range (total dissolved solids), with a certain hardness range and a certain tolerance of pH or alkalinity, with the right number of factors in that water - that we can customize a solution for them, which can give them a great water ingredient.
Water Systems Group also deals with keeping machinery safe. “The other value that we’re able to add to a customer is to give them extended equipment life, which brings down there overall costs of their equipment.”
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