Water wars: Annual event in Berkeley Springs focuses on taste

Mirror writer served as judge in this year’s water contest

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Williams / The International Water Tasting competition has been held in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, for the past 28 years.

BERKELEY SPRINGS, West Virginia — The winners of the water wars affix gold seals on their products, so I took seriously my task of taste testing. After all, the tappers and the bottlers had sent their H2O from as far away as Korea and Canada, Australia and the Arctic, Turkey and Trinidad-Tobago.

For the 28th consecutive year, this quaint town 90 minutes south of Altoona hosted the International Water Tasting competition last month, and it didn’t take long to determine that the taste of waters can range as far as their sources.

It also was quickly apparent why organizers chose mostly novices, including me, to do the judging. We are all representatives of the media and are likely to tout this event founded to lure tourists in the dead of winter to a place full of natural springs known as the “country’s first spa.”

Still, I didn’t know what I was doing until we judges underwent training from watermaster Arthur von Wisesenberger, who has participated in a number of water tastings, has been a consultant for Perrier, Evian and others in the water industry, and authored five books including “Oasis: The Complete Guide to Bottled Water Throughout the World.”

Von Wiesenberger explained the nuances of water tasting, the rating forms and the process. Perhaps similar to a wine tasting, water is rated on a five- or 10-point scale in five areas:

* Appearance: Colorless is good; any color is not.

* Odor: None is good; the smell of chlorine, sulphur, plastic and the like is not.

* Flavor: Clean is good; the taste of chlorine, sulphur, salt and the like is not.

* Mouth feel: Refreshing is good; heavy or stale is not.

* Aftertaste: Thirst-quenching is good; residue is not.

A sixth category is for overall impression with 14 options, ranging from “I can’t stand it in my mouth” to “This water tastes real good. I would be very happy to have it for my everyday drinking water.”

I didn’t think I was a water snob because I usually drink tap water. But after getting my certificate as a “certified water taster” and sniffing, swirling and sipping from 78 goblets of water, I realized I hadn’t given a single entrant a perfect score.

That was easy in the first category of municipal water that had varying — sometimes extreme — smells and tastes of chlorine, as they are generally required by law to use. It became harder to distinguish entrants in the best purified and best bottled non-carbonated water categories. But judging spark­ling waters was easier for me because it includes a ranking for effervescence and the more bubbles, the better, although I’m not sure I was supposed to rate them that way.

I try to be a fair person, but I was afraid my bias against Norway — it had just won the medal count at the Winter Olympics — would interfere with my judging several entrants from that Scandinavian country. But it’s a blind test: Volunteers decanted from plain bottles into glasses lined in rows on large placemats full of numbered circles.

Forgetting my bias during a break in the judging, I participated in the People’s Choice competition of “best packaging” and voted for Svalbaroi Polar Iceberg Water from Longyearbyen, Norway.

It comes in a glass bottle manufactured by a 200-year-old Czech Republic bottlemaker and with a tamper-proof cap carved in Spain from wood certified from a sustainable forest, according to its website. That comes in an attractive, award-winning packaging tube.

The water itself is from Arctic icebergs, calved (or split) from the fjords around the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway, then melted and bottled, according to the company. It claims to be the northernmost bottled water in the world, about 621 miles from the North Pole. You can buy it online with a 750-milliliter bottle in the round box going for $92. Shipping is free.

Svalbaroi won the packaging competition. But it came in fourth in the best bottled water division.

Getting the gold for best bottled water was Frequency H2O of Queensland, Australia. Another company down under, Antipodes Sparkling Water of Whakatane, New Zealand, won for best sparkling water.

The best purified drinking water winner was Ophora Water of Santa Barbara, California. Hometown favorite Berkeley Springs Purified Water tied for fifth in that category.

In the municipal category, the best in the world was awarded to Clearbrook, British Columbia, Canada and the best in the U.S. was Santa Ana, California.

Many of the award winners had won previously, according to organizers.

“The consistency in winners from year to year with different panels of judges validates the choices,” said von Wiesenberger. “It also speaks to the impressively high caliber of the waters entered.”

For the first time this year, entrants were from Oklahoma, as well as Cyprus, Jamaica, Trinidad-Tobega and Turkey. In all, waters tested came from 15 states, four Canadian provinces and nine foreign countries, according to Jeanne Mozier, one of the event’s founders.

A second People’s Choice event also was introduced this year: Best Flavor Essence Sparkling Water. Icy Blue Lemon from Marchand, Manitoba, Canada, won.

The three-day event is more than just fun and games.

A four-hour seminar, “Water: Beneath the Surface and Around the Globe,” addressed threats to and solutions for drinking water. It featured such speakers as Dr. Zohreh Movahed, project engineer and consultant for Maryland-based WATEK Engineering Corp., and a former Johns Hopkins University instructor and researcher, on the impacts that the lack of water and sanitation have on women in developing countries.

Another speaker was Jane Lazgin, former communications director of Nestle Waters North America and a member of the start-up team in the late 1970s that launched Perrier Mineral Water in the United States, a move that industry experts believe led sparking water to be a “healthy and chic” alternative to alcohol and soda, according to Mozier.

For all her efforts, Lazgin was awarded the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Lifetime Achievement Award this year in an impressive ceremony.

The unceremonious conclusion had audience members flooding the stage and grabbing hundreds of bottles of water that had been on display for the event in the so-called “water rush.”

“The crowd spent less than 10 minutes making it all disappear,” Mozier said with a laugh.

She and organizers already have started planning the 29th annual International Water Tasting event for Feb. 22 and 23, 2019.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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Resources/More info:

www.BerkeleySpringsWaterTasting.com

www.BottledWaterWeb.com

National Drinking Water Clearinghouse, http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/drinkingwater.cfm

American Water Works Association, www.AWWA.org and its Chesapeake Division, www.CSAWWA.org

International Bottled Water Association, www.BottledWater.org

World Water Rescue Foundation, www.WWRF.co

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