The process is similar to a wine competition. Each distinguished judge, dressed in their black-tie best, raises a glass and observes the liquid’s appearance, smelling it, taking a taste, and scoring the flavor, mouthfeel, and aftertaste. But unlike wine, the top scorers in this competition have no color, no odor, and little, if any, flavor.
It’s the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, which for 25 years has gathered together city officials, bottlers, researchers, and other H20 enthusiasts to spend a weekend celebrating and sampling hydration. What began as a publicity stunt to draw attention to the mineral water spas of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, has evolved into a respected and heavily attended gathering. Forty-six states and 50 countries have submitted entrants over the years; this year’s competition, held in February, saw entrants from as far away as Greece, South Korea, and New Zealand.
Restaurant consultant and former broadcaster Arthur von Wiesenberger helps give the event legitimacy. He began as a connoisseur of champagne and caviar before turning his attention to a healthier product, writing the books A Pocket Guide to Bottled Water and The Taste of Water.
“Tap water varies from state to state, town to town and even tap to tap,” says von Wiesenberger, explaining what attracted him to the substance. “Not all water is created equally.”
He trains the competition’s 10 or so judges, who are usually amateur tasters when they begin. Von Wiesenberger walks them through the unpleasant elements to look for (particles, cloudiness), smell for (chlorine, plastic, sulfur), and taste for (mustiness, salt, chemicals). They also learn what qualities to seek in the event’s other categories, including bottled and purified water.
A judge from the 2014 competition. Image credit: Jeanne Mozier.
But while minimal flavor is important, the top-performing waters have tended to be those that embrace the natural zest of their source. Jeanne Mozier, vice president of Travel Berkeley Springs, which produces the event, pointed to a string of wins from Canadian waters. She attributed the better flavor of those entrants to the fact that Canada is more flexible than the U.S. in treating its municipal water.
“Last year’s winner, Clearbook, B.C., drew their water from a highly protected spring source but didn’t have to follow the cookie-cutter program that says ‘you must put in this and that,’ which destroys the water’s taste,” Mozier says. “Atlantic City won another year, which surprised us, but it was enhanced because the sand naturally filters the water sourced from there.”
This year’s winner was Hamilton, Ohio. The rest of the top five were as follows:
2nd: Emporia, Kansas
3rd: Clearbrook, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada
4th: Three way tie—
Dickinson, North Dakota
5th: Independence, Missouri
The tastings are the main attraction, but the gathering also includes seminars and discussions about public health and environmental issues around water. Among the topics this past February were the effect of climate change on water sources, as well as a case discussion of the 2014 contamination of drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians due to a leaky chemical storage tank. That disaster last year led the Water Tasting organizers to introduce a new Clean Water Pledge, asking participants to agree to the statement "Water is for life. I pledge to do all I can to keep our water clean."