The life of a water master

Friday, March 31, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 13
By Joe Morris

Berkeley competition categories:

  • Best Municipal Water
  • Best Bottled Water
  • Best Sparkling Water
  • Best Purified Drinking Water
  • Best Packaging

More info:

Training judges on how to taste water would seem, at first blush, to be an uncomplicated task. Arthur Von Wiesenberger would politely beg to differ.

As the official “water master” for the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition, Von Wiesenberger has the task of getting judges up to speed on what makes for a good water.

As the author of several books on bottled water, as well as multiple other books and articles on food and beverages, Von Wiesenberger is an internationally known print and broadcast presenter. He’s a member of the International Bottled Water Association and a past president of The International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, so it’s safe to say he knows his water.

“I have about an hour to get someone ready to evaluate water,” he says. “We use tasting sheets that were designed for NASA to evaluate the acceptability of mineralization in water for space travel. It’s not too hard – we are looking for the absence of things, really.”

For example, when someone fills a glass from the tap, they smell the chlorine used in most municipal water. Bottled water doesn’t have that smell, or at least it shouldn’t. Also, if something’s floating in the water, that takes points off. Clear and transparent is the goal.

Then there’s an aroma check, which in addition to the aforementioned chlorine can also include a swampy smell, which might indicate the presence of algae, or iron, which gives a metallic smell. Even worse is a plastic smell, which would indicate a low-grade casing.

“Then we move onto taste,” Von Wiesenberger explains. “When you roll the water over your palate, you can pick up subtleties of sweetness, bitterness or sourness. Water does have a flavor profile.

“Sweeter-tasting water means certain minerals, like potassium, while calcium and magnesium provide hardness. Silica, on the other hand, will give you a ‘mouth feel’ of slipperiness.”

Springs have a unique fingerprint, he adds, and so each water can provide its own overall impression. That, he says, is what the judges are after.

“When we talk about flavor, mouth-feel and aftertaste, that’s what we mean,” he says.

“Do you feel thirsty after drinking it? Do you want more or not? Our scoring sheets run the range from ‘I would use this as my everyday drinking water’ to ‘I can’t stand this water in my mouth,’ and that’s how we add it all up.”