Quenching a thirst to be the best

Contest: Carroll County's Mount Airy pits its tap water against other municipalities' in 10th annual international judging in West Virginia.

February 25, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The water of Mount Airy tastes good.

That is the considered opinion of Mount Airy Mayor Gerald R. Johnson. The tap water tastes so good, he is carrying 2 gallons of the town's finest to Berkeley Springs, W.Va., to compete tomorrow against municipalities from across the country in the 10th annual International Water Tasting & Competition.

"I'll get together with the water experts and we'll give [them] our best," said Johnson, who doesn't claim to know much about hydrology, other than to let the tap run for a while before filling two glass jugs for the official entry.

The contest is part of Berkeley Springs' three-month Winter Festival of the Waters, billed as "black tie or bib overalls optional," and includes competitions for municipal and bottled waters -- noncarbonated and sparkling.

"It's now established itself as the premier water-tasting event in the country, if not the world -- not that there are that many," said Arthur von Wiesenberger, of Santa Barbara, Calif., a water consultant who participated in the first Berkeley Springs contest, in 1991, and has trained the judges.

The municipal water category this year includes 45 entrants, including communities in California, New York and the Florida Keys. Forty-eight companies are competing in the bottled water contest, including entries from Bosnia, France and Italy.

The entrant with the largest number of customers would be Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, based in Los Angeles and serving about 17 million people. Its water samples from Northern California and the Colorado River placed fourth in 1997, and first in 1998.

The entrant with the smallest number of customers probably is host city Berkeley Springs, population 700.

The list of entrants includes the city of Westminster, though that's news to Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan. "It must be one of our citizens who entered, who likes the taste of the water," he said.

"There have been some entries that I was surprised anyone would be bold enough to enter them," said von Wiesenberger, recalling some losing entries of earlier years. But the winners remain the same year after year despite different panels of judges.

The perennial winners include host city Berkeley Springs, and Charlestown, W.Va. Baltimore placed third in 1991. In 1992, Annapolis finished second.

The 13 judges this year include travel, food, wine and recreation editors, free-lance and staff writers for magazines and newspapers -- plus the American director for France's Champagne Wines Information Bureau. They will have numbered carafes, will examine the water for clarity, smell it for an absence of aroma -- such as sulfur or fish -- and then taste, with attention to the feeling in the mouth and to aftertaste.

"It's not unlike wine tasting -- in a very subtle, sobering way," said von Wiesenberger, who added the best water has some flavor but not much. "Water that's devoid of everything would amount to distilled water, and ends up tasting flat to our palates."

A little potassium adds sweetness. For a hard-to-define fullness, naturally occurring calcium and magnesium are ideal.

Mount Airy, straddling Carroll and Frederick counties, depends on three wells drawing water from an aquifer in rock geologists call Marburg schist. Four pumping stations provide up to 800,000 gallons a day, and the municipality adds chlorine, fluoride and caustic soda.

"I prefer the taste of water from limestone compared to water from out of the schists around here," said Mark T. Duigon, state hydrogeologist for the Maryland Geological Survey. But taste is usually not the first quality he considers in municipal waters: "We're really not thinking about subtleties of taste, but whether there's something in there that will kill you."

To avoid embarrassments, only the waters ranked in the top five will be identified by the judges. "We're not about saying, `You have stinky water,' " said Jill Klein Rone, publicity director for the event. But entrants are required to file affidavits that the water indeed came from the tap, and hasn't been given special treatment.

Johnson is hoping for the best -- but at the least will satisfy his curiosity.

"Our town has good-tasting water," he said. "Of course, I'm sort of biased.

"Actually, I have no idea -- and that's what I want to find out."

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