What kind of water should I use for espresso?
January 12, 2015 11:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm confused. I have a nice-ish consumer espresso maker (Breville, $500 range) and like it quite a bit. There seems to be a lot of controversy online about the water to use both for machine longevity and the best coffee. Does anyone have any advice? Tap water, bottled water, filtered water or distilled?

Anecdata: my Italian friend who loves coffee swears he'll never use anything but bottled water in his espresso. He likes Fiji and some other random brand. And the person who sold me the Breville machine said that if we don't use filtered water, the machines will develop scales much faster.

But, is there a hard and fast answer to this? Or any advice?
posted by stewiethegreat to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about a hard and fast answer, but an easy and fast answer could come from a double blind taste test. Get someone that isn't your Italian friend with an axe to grind to help you out.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:09 AM on January 12, 2015

When I was a barista in a well-regarded third wave coffee shop in Los Angeles (the sort of place that gets beans overnighted from top roasters in the Pacific Northwest because they actually don't think house-roasted necessarily results in the best possible coffee), we used filtered tap water. Like the sort that would result if you had one of those aftermarket filters attached to your tap.

Bottled water is unnecessary. (Also a lot of Italian coffee is shit, so unless your friend is an award-winning barista from the best bar in the country, I wouldn't privilege his opinion over that of non-Italian people.)

Coffee shops use a de-scaler on their espresso machines every night at closing. You should de-scale regularly, though you won't need to do so quite that often unless you're cranking out hundreds of shots per day on your little Breville machine.
posted by Sara C. at 11:11 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

How is the tap water in your house? If you have hard water, everything in your house will be effected. If not, your tap water may be just fine. On the other hand, bottled water may simply be municipal water, depending on the brand.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:11 AM on January 12, 2015

Get someone that isn't your Italian friend with an axe to grind to help you out.

Or your Italian friend even. Blind test him and see if he can tell.

Here's my answer:

Bad water in/bad product out.

So if you wouldn't drink the water, don't make espresso with it.

If you would, then do.

Don't use distilled. Try drinking that sometime and it's like someone pulled the soul out of the water.

Bottled is proven to be no better than tap, so why incur the expense?

I tend to drink filtered at home, but if it's not available we have award winning water in my area, so that's good enough.

I wouldn't worry about scales. You have to clean it regardless.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:14 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am a coffee roaster and we get this question quite a bit. It depends on what you want the result to be, and it is a bunch of trade offs.

Distilled water will not taste quite as good (but honestly, for many people its just fine), but it won't scale the machine as fast.

Straight tap is really the worst option for most of the country. With rare exception, municipal water tastes a little chemically in one direction or another. It will also probably scale your machine annoyingly fast. descaling a home espresso machine is a necessary chore, but tap water will make it occur much more often.

Filtered tap water, is better for taste, but it will scale faster (again, probably, depending on the part of the country you're in).

Bottled water is just silly, its mostly municipal water and your friend is into his ritual. That's fine, but there's a vanishingly small chance he can taste a difference there between bottled and filtered tap.

We've done randomized blind taste tests of different waters used for pour-over and batch brewing, and it matters, but not in in a coffee-breaking 'good or bad' dichotomy, its usually just different. We havn't done this in espresso because espresso is a notably more violent reaction, and the tastes of the few ounces of water you're consuming don't really cut through the coffee, unless the water is super bad (Except, chlorine does cut through espresso, and shop level filters work really hard to remove this from coffee-water).

Personally, I would go for filtered tap water. If you don't like descaling your machine at all (and then I would suggest a different type of brewer) I would stick to distilled, but it will make the espresso taste a little flat.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:36 AM on January 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

IANYIFAIAI (I am not your Italian friend although I am Italian). I use filtered water. I have a filter attached to the water tap in my fridge. My espresso is pretty much world famous. And by that I mean everyone in my house really loves it.
posted by the webmistress at 11:39 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I filter my tap water for everything I ingest in my house (coffee, making pasta, ice cubes, drinking water...) because the water just isn't that good. I've lived in other places where the water was very fresh though. That's the standard I'd go by. If you drink it or melt it in your drinks then it's good to be the foundation of other drinks. If you think it needs to be cleansed before drinking, then clean it for any food/drink uses.
posted by mdn at 11:58 AM on January 12, 2015

I was a barista; I am not your barista. Nth Sara C and furnace.heart in that you should probably just use filtered tap water, whether that's an inline filter or a pitcher filter. I use the latter to prevent scale even though on Oahu we have extremely clean (and non-fluoridated) water.

Your grinder, the freshness of your beans, and the temperature/pressure your machine is capable of maintaining are going to have much more of an impact on the taste of your espresso than your tap water.
posted by a halcyon day at 12:02 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

If your profile location is correct, you have very hard water (reports are here). So, I would definitely use filtered water to cut down on the need to clean the machine.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:04 PM on January 12, 2015

I use tap water in my machine, but the municipal water in Ottawa is super soft so scaling in not a concern. When I was in Guelph (where water is very high in mineral content) I had to use distilled water.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:12 PM on January 12, 2015

The rabbit hole goes deep on this one! If you want a detailed answer, here are the water standards published by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (note that TDS stands for Total Dissolved Solids). You can compare that to your city's water report to see where it differs, and look for a filter (or reverse osmosis system) that will get your water within range. Water varies a whole lot from place to place, and the system that's appropriate for someone in another city may not be appropriate for you. Comparing insectosaurus's links to the SCAA standard, it looks like water in your area is within range on calcium (aka "hardness" -- here's a brief explanation on the difference between hardness and TDS). However, your water does have high TDS and is slightly more salty and alkaline than recommended. You'd want to look for a system that could deal with that. You could (if you're unconcerned with expense, waste, and possible plastic-y taste) use bottled spring water. For a cleaner flavor, less waste, and lower per-gallon cost, you could also look into the 5 gallon jugs they deliver to offices -- just make sure, in either case, that you get spring water, not distilled water. You can generally get the mineral content of bottled waters from the manufacturer (for example), and check that against the SCAA standard.

The basic answer: don't go with distilled -- some dissolved minerals are necessary for you to get the best flavor out of your coffee. Filtered tap water is probably your best bet -- any filter will be better than none -- and you'll want to descale your machine occasionally according to its instrucitons.
posted by ourobouros at 12:27 PM on January 12, 2015

(the sort of place that gets beans overnighted from top roasters in the Pacific Northwest because they actually don't think house-roasted necessarily results in the best possible coffee)

One of the places i work for is the sort of place that roasts the beans for those shops, which is very highly regarded for their own espresso at their stores as well.

They just use a 3 stage membrane/carbon/sediment filter system. All the good places i've ever seen the setup at do this.

FWIW, this same shop screwed around with a LOT of water setups. Ionized stuff, all kinds of wacky crap. Some of it actually damaged the machines. All you need is a normal 3 stage carbon setup.

They're pretty cheap used, and pretty easy to install. Especially if you just want it on say, the cold side of the sink you'll fill the espresso machine from.

Your grinder, the freshness of your beans, and the temperature/pressure your machine is capable of maintaining are going to have much more of an impact on the taste of your espresso than your tap water.

Use filtered water, but this. I've made shockingly good coffee with semi-ok home machines and tap water just from having a decent grind, good pressure, and very fresh beans. Like some of the best coffee i've ever had kind of good.

As a random detail, one of the fads now for fancy shops is static tanks. As in, not hooking the machines straight up to the water line so variances in pressure can't effect them. I cracked up at this, because almost all home machines just... draw from a static tank. You're already ahead!(semi snarking, semi not)
posted by emptythought at 5:10 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

After a maddening amount of research, chatting with local third-wave shops, and some testing among friends, I settled on filtered tap water for my home espresso machine. The espresso tastes great, and even though I don't descale it on anything resembling a regular basis, I've never gotten to the point where I had to descale it.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:57 PM on January 12, 2015

I use water from one of those 35ยข/gallon water refill stations found in supermarkets to make my morning espressos and haven't had a single problem over the years. Our tap water is horrible, so that's also our daily drinking water.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:36 AM on January 13, 2015

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