It isn't clear why we judge the taste of bottled water

March 01, 2007|By KEVIN COWHERD

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.VA. -- It was a frozen Saturday in February and while others cowered in fear in their living rooms over the weather forecast (snow, sleet, etc.), I journeyed to the brown hills of Morgan County in northeastern West Virginia tasked with an awesome responsibility: to be a water-tasting judge.

The occasion was the 17th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, the largest and longest-running such competition in the world.

There were 11 other judges in the ballroom of the stately Country Inn, all of us seated on a dais with a glittering array of water glasses in front of us and a huge display of bottled waters occupying the center of the room.

If you're wondering what a water-tasting judge does, well, it's all very complicated.

But, OK, here goes: you look at the water, sniff it, then taste it.

You do this for hours and hours.

Oh, you could cut the tension with a knife.

Still, there were actually people in the audience who watched as we examined, sniffed and tasted the various waters.

So don't be surprised if, sometime in the very near future, Comcast begins offering The Water Channel, with 24-hour coverage of water-tasting competitions from all over the globe, plus water-related news and notes, salinity readings from the world's oceans, etc.

By the way, I was at the water-tasting because last September, I wrote a column about bottled water snobs in which I basically said these people should get a life, since all bottled water tastes pretty much the same, so who were they kidding?

This column was read by Jill Klein Rone, the friendly, energetic producer of the competition, who invited me to come to Berkeley Springs and try the different waters and see if I still felt the same way -- or shut up about the whole thing.

Anyway, there were 119 entries in this year's competition. There were waters from 12 countries (including New Zealand, the Philippines, Bosnia, Brazil, Sweden, and Argentina) and 22 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Basically, it was a Woodstock for water-drinking enthusiasts, and there were water geeks from all over walking around the ballroom declaiming on the qualities of this obscure bottled water versus that one.

For water bottlers, in particular, the competition is a big deal, because the winners get to slap a medal sticker on their bottles that says something like "First Place: Berkeley Springs International Water-Tasting!"

Before the competition began, the judges sat in on a training seminar given by a man named Arthur von Weisenberger, who has attended 16 of the 17 Berkeley Springs water-tastings and was introduced to us as a "watermaster."

When I asked him exactly how someone attains such a lofty title, he laughed and pointed in the direction of Rone and the other officials and said: "Oh, they gave it to me. After a number of years of doing this, they figured I needed a title."

Von Weisenberger, 51, lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and is a consultant to the bottled water industry and a noted author and lecturer on water.

He gave us an overview of water and its importance in society, adding that last year for the first time, Americans bought more bottled water than beer.

He told us what to look for as we judged a water on its appearance ("it should be transparent and clear"), aroma ("it should have none") flavor ("is it clean, musty, chemically?") mouth feel ("refreshing or heavy") and after-taste ("is it thirst-quenching?")

"We're going to try to bring subconscious impulses to a conscious level," he explained, which was a little deep for me, as I was still stuck on how water could have "mouth feel."

Von Weisenberger said he attended his first water-tasting in Miami in 1978 and was hooked instantly. A day earlier, in fact, he had been one of the lecturers during four hours of water-related seminars, including ones titled "The History of Bottled Water," "The Dark Side of White-Washed Products and Their Affect on Water," and "21st Century Drinking Water Challenges for West Va.'s Urbanizing Corridor."

Still, he was the only speaker I'd ever heard who could make water sound fascinating. By the time the training seminar was over, we were all fired up and eager to try our hand at judging, certain we could now detect the subtle differences in one water as opposed to another.

For me, this feeling lasted approximately 20 seconds.

Because as soon as the judging started, I was back to thinking that all water tastes the same.

The water-tasting competition was broken into four categories: municipal water, purified drinking water, bottled noncarbonated water and sparkling water.

Great. I couldn't tell much difference between any of them in the first two categories. When I mentioned this during a break to one of my fellow judges, Akiko Busch, a freelance writer for Travel & Leisure magazine, she laughed.

"Thank God!" she said. "I thought I was the only one who thought so!"

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