March 22 is World Water Day, begun by the United Nations in 1992 as “an opportunity to learn more about water related issues, be inspired to tell others and take action to make a difference.” With all the negative focus on water recently like the lead in Flint, Michigan, the world definitely needs to take stock of the good things water provides.

But how do you celebrate water, and what does that even look like? At the 26th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting held this past February, the longest running water competition in the world, I had a seat as a water judge, tasting through 70 municipal and bottled waters detecting how nuances affect the taste of water.

Say what? Yes, you are free to roll your eyes, snicker, and make sarcastic asides. But let me set the stage for you. The murmurs of a skeptical crowd fill the hotel ballroom in the dead of winter, watching as 12 judges pull glasses of liquid to their faces, dramatically examining the appearance, holding it up to the light, sniffing it, rolling it around their tongues and finally swallowing it. But at this tasting no one’s getting tipsy.

The judges at work.

The judges at work.

Gold, silver and bronze medals are passed out in multiple categories: bottled water, sparkling water, purified water, municipal water, and packaging design. And this is what makes Berkeley Springs unique – it does not pit municipal water (tap water) against bottled water; it celebrates all water. Municipal water entries come from America, Canada, even South Korea. Bottled waters come from expected places like Switzerland and France, but also from New Zealand, Argentina, China, Tasmania, and the country of Georgia. But why is there a crowd in some remote hamlet in West Virginia to watch people drink water? Berkeley Springs, originally called Bath (George Washington himself named the town), is known for its natural spring water that flows to the surface at a constant 74.3 degrees to this day. People have come here for hundreds of years to drink and bathe in these waters – and long before the colonists found the spring, Native Americans used it. Simply put, Berkeley Springs has a history with water.

Tasting water however is not so simple, and after judging at this competition for the last decade I’ve discovered some secrets. Waters are tasted using guidelines identical to beer and wine competitions (I’m also a professional wine and spirits judge), and are rated for appearance, aroma, taste and mouth feel. Waters are served in glass carafes, evaluated blind, and served at room temperature (as chilling it masks inherent flaws).

Appearance might seem like a no-brainer. Water is clear, right? Not exactly. Some municipal waters have a cloudy appearance due to their filtering process. Glacial water has a faint teal look to it from heavy oxygenation. New York and San Francisco historically have very pure, unadulterated municipal waters with minimal human intervention. That’s due to the fact that their water is from pristine, protected sources. But the amount of organic minerals in water directly affects their taste. Silica, for example, gives water a silky mouth feel; potassium translates to a sweeter profile. And there are undesirables: too much iron from rock and/or plumbing and water tastes metallic; hydrogen sulfate produces an odor of rotten eggs. Municipal water often smells of chlorine. Ironically water treatments plants perform an amazing job of cleaning, filtering and making safe our public water, only to have what is called “residual chlorine” added to the water before it leaves the plant to fight potential bacteria inside the pipes underneath your city. Therefore, many factors bear upon the winning waters.

The Judges evaluate water in multiple categories.

The Judges evaluate water in multiple categories.

The winner of the gold medal for municipal water was the tiny municipality of Clearbrook in British Columbia, whose water source is so pure (it’s also a mall municipality not needing a lengthy piping system) that they do next to nothing to clean their water. Similarly, natural spring waters (those that emanate from a natural source) have spent hundreds, even thousands, of years integrating trace elements and minerals specific to the strata of rock they are exposed to, be that limestone, granite or lava, creating a unique H2O fingerprint. And where else can you taste waters from across the planet?

A bottled water from Greece nabbed the Best Bottled Water award. Best Sparkling Water came from Bosnia, and Best Purified Water came from Richmond, Michigan.

Granted, the idea of a water competition seems peculiar. But I have learned over the last decade, not only as a water judge but also in training others, is that the more interest we take in water, the better off we are. Additionally, at the competition there is a public table and anyone can taste some of the same water that judges like myself taste. I have seen skeptical people animatedly discuss the differences in various waters, I’ve heard them try and convince others which water tastes better and I’ve seen doubters turn a corner and realize that water is unique.

I often hear people tell me, “water is water.” But water is distinctive that that is worth celebrating on World Water Day.

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