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Turning water into medal

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The display of bottled entrants takes 9 hours to assemble, and 10 minutes to disappear when spectators scurry to take home the leftovers.

Welcome to the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, where judges sip everything from Texas taps to Bosnian bottles in search of the world’s best.

By Michael Cervin

The crowd’s anticipating mummers fill the hotel ballroom; spectators eagerly watch as 12 judges pull glasses of liquid to their faces and dramatically examine their appearance, holding them up to the light, sniffing and finally swallowing. But at this tasting, no one’s getting tipsy. Each February, an audience visits West Virginia to take in the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, the oldest and longest-running water competition in the world.

Gold, silver and bronze medals are passed out in multiple categories: bottled water, bottled sparkling water, bottled purified water, municipal (tap) water and packaging design. Municipal water entries come from the United States, Canada—even South Korea. Bottled waters come from expected places like Switzerland and France, but also from Bosnia, Argentina, China, Tasmania and the country of Georgia. But why is a crowd drawn to some remote West Virginia hamlet just to watch people drink water? Berkeley Springs, originally called Bath (George Washington himself named the town), is renowned for the natural spring water that flows to the surface at a constant 74.3 degrees. For hundreds of years, people have come to drink and bathe in these waters. Suffice it to say, there’s a certain enthusiasm for water here you might not find elsewhere.

Tasting water is serious business. I’ve judged this competition for five years, and we use strict guidelines, identical to those used for judging beer and wine. Each water is served in a glass carafe and evaluated blindly for appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel. The water’s served at room temperature, because chilling it masks flaws.

Appearance might seem like a no-brainer (water is clear, right?), but some municipal waters are cloudy due to the filtering processes. Glacial water has a faint teal hue from heavy oxygenation. New York and San Francisco usually have very pure, unadulterated municipal waters with minimal human intervention; that’s because their water is from pristine, protected sources.

The presence of organic minerals in water directly affects its taste, sometimes for the better: Silica gives water a silky mouthfeel; potassium lends a sweeter profile. Others are undesirables: Too much iron (from rock or plumbing) and water tastes metallic, while hydrogen sulfate produces an odor similar to rotten eggs. Municipal water often reeks of chlorine, which is used to kill bacteria.

Natural spring waters spend hundreds, even thousands of years drawing into their profiles trace elements and minerals specific to the strata of rock they’re exposed to (limestone, granite or lava), thereby creating a unique H2O fingerprint (dare I say terroir?). This is why water is distinctive by region, and the subtle variables can be identified. Still, those nuances can be difficult to detect when tasting water for lengthy sessions: Even water judging can lead to palate fatigue, because water strips the mouth of natural salinity. We use water crackers (no pun intended) to help reactivate the palate.

I’m often asked what “the best” water is, but I don’t have an answer. Water is subjective. Personally, I love the crisp purity of SwissMountain, and the velvety allure of Hawaiian Springs. Trust your own palate, and pay a little extra attention the next time you turn on the faucet.

WATER MATTERS | These breweries bank on their unique H20.

Burton Bridge Brewery: Water in Burton-on-Trent, England, is famously sulfate-rich; the brewery’s bitters have a distinct mineral taste and, sometimes, a hint of sulfur.

Kona Brewing: For the beers it brews on the mainland, Kona alters the water’s mineral levels to match the water of its main brewery on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Rockmill Brewery: Glacier-carved sandstone gives this Ohio farm brewery’s water a mineral content close to that of Wallonia, Belgium (farmhouse ales’ birthplace).

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