The judges pick up the glasses, swish the liquid around ever so gently, then sniff. They hold the glasses up to the light, the better to ascertain clearness. Then they take sips. They judge the liquid on appearance, odor, flavor and aftertaste. Finally, after deliberation, a winner is chosen.
The best of show goes to ... South Carroll. The best water, that is.
If you're served by the county's Freedom District Water Treatment Plant, the water you're drinking is prize-winning stuff. So next time you go to your faucet for a long, cool drink of H2O, savor it slowly.
"It is exciting," says Ann Shearer, an administrator with the Carroll County Bureau of Utilities.
The water taste test is an annual event, explains Shearer. It was held at the Chesapeake Section of the American Water Works Association meeting this month in Annapolis.
Each year, a different number of municipalities enters the contest. The Freedom District Water Treatment Plant, Carroll County Bureau of Utilities, took top tasting honors among the four utilities using surface water in the Chesapeake region.
"We serve about 22,000 people," Shearer says. They have endured strict conservation measures for the last three summers because of limits placed on the amount of water drawn daily from Liberty Reservoir by Baltimore, which owns the reservoir. So though they have the best-tasting water, county officials have asked that they use it wisely.
There was a separate contest for ground water. First place went to Crofton Meadows Water Treatment Plant, Anne Arundel County Public Works.
The other municipalities in the running for the surface water taste test were from the Washington area and Delaware.
Carroll's first place was especially sweet for Shearer. She runs the contest for the AWWA. "It was not rigged!" she says. "I organize the contest but I didn't even tabulate the scores."
Shearer was not involved in the judging, which was performed by six members of AWWA, including Ron Sell, who works for McCrone Inc., a consulting engineering firm in Annapolis.
"It was best by a good bit," Sell says of the Freedom District Water Treatment Plant sample. "It was really fun. A couple had a chlorine odor, a little bit of an aftertaste. This had none of that," he says of Freedom District water.
Another judge, Douglas Brinkham, says it was a hard contest to judge.
"Keep in mind, none of us are really experts," says Brinkman, who works for Black and Veatch, a Gaithersburg engineering firm. "Except that all of us drink water."
Brinkman says all of the water was excellent. "The water quality in this region is very good," he says.
Freedom District water has come close to winning - placing second one year, third another. This is the first time it has taken first place.
The county buys its water from Baltimore, which draws it from the Liberty Reservoir.
So if the water is drawn from the same place each year, what made the difference this time?
The same municipalities tend to compete every year, says Bruce Cheney, who works for the Fuller Equipment Group in Forest Hill and is a committee member for the taste test.
"But we have to add chemicals to water to purify it. And they have to be added in the proper order. In every case, the water is safe, " he says.
However, sometimes the order in which they are added or slight variation in the amount of chemicals can make all of the difference when it comes to taste.