BERKELEY SPRINGS – Twenty-six goblets of water sat before me on a recent Saturday afternoon in Berkeley Springs. I had to drink them all, or at least a gulp of each, and they were just the first flight I had to taste before the 22nd International Water Tasting Competition concluded.
As I had a few times before, I agreed to be a judge for this event that evaluates spring, tap and formulated bottled waters from around the world on their clarity, taste, refreshment and mouth feel.
I spend a good bit of time writing about food, and I cook for the joy of it as well as the sustenance. So I trust my palate. But it’s one thing to write about potables such as wine or beer, which exhibit their characters boldly. The thing about water is that it’s not supposed to taste like anything. And the more it tastes like nothing, the better.
Berkeley Springs is an intelligent choice for siting a water competition. Water is at its founding in the 1700s, as the town of Bath. Water flows from the earth — healing hot springs that Founding Father George Washington famously enjoyed. The stone depression called his “bathtub” remains in Berkeley Springs State Park at the center of town, which has been a spa for centuries since.
Since 1991, Berkeley Springs has invited water purveyors from across the country and around the world to compete for gold, silver and bronze medals that convey bragging rights, and more. Putting a gold seal on a water bottle label means a lot.
Producers of the event say that when Martinsburg’s Tumai water won the gold medal in 2008 for best tasting noncarbonated bottled water, the company’s sales spiked 4,000 percent. This year, a bottler came all the way from China to introduce a new, bottled glacial water to the public.
Tap water, bottled water, fizzy water — all are judged and winners named. The water tasting caps Berkeley Springs Winter Festival of the Waters, a calendar of events that highlight the town’s spa culture, as well as art, music and food. The water tasting that takes place at The Country Inn is the largest of its type in the world.
Bad water is easy enough to identify. Water that smells of sulphur or tastes of chorine isn’t pleasant to drink, and water that looks cloudy or has suspended contaminants doesn’t invite a big swig. But filtered, bottled and packaged water all tastes remarkably like…nothing. Corporate soft drink makers, such as Coca-Cola, which bottles Dasani water, and PepsiCo, which makes Aquafina, formulate water based on precise filtering and mineralization.
Watermaster Arthur von Wiesenberger once again instructed the judges on the chemistry of water. Von Wiesenberger’s palate for water is so precise, he is called to consult for major beverage corporations and maintains a water cellar at his California home the way that others do for wine. His favorite right now, he says, is a sparkling water from Germany with aggressive mineralization that gives a pronounced taste.
There are up to 30 chemicals in municipal tap water, von Wiesenberger said. Chlorine is a typical addititive, used to sanitize water from biocontaminants. Water in New Orleans, for example, has traveled so far down the Mississippi and across the delta, that it is heavily infiltrated with biomatter and therefore, heavily chlorinated.
Von Wiesenberger notified us that we have 100,000 taste buds on our palate. I was going to have to employ every one of mine. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. There were 10 other judges, and I hoped their collective intelligence would make up for any mistakes I made.
We were advised not to partake of coffee or other beverages during breaks in the judging. Oddly, tasting water makes a judge’s mouth dry. That’s because each little swig washes saliva away, taking with it the mouth’s natural moisture. By the end of a water-tasting session, a judge can be downright thirsty. We were given slightly salty, dry crackers to promote our mouths to remoisturize.
But that’s not all we got. Berkeley Springs is kind to its water judges. A mid-morning brunch at Panorama at the Peak featured house-made cakes, fresh asparagus-and-ham crepes, herb-stuffed potatoes and a parting gift — a tiny frosted chocolate cupcake, boxed to go.
And dinner was sublime. Tari’s Café chef Devin Lucas prepared a tasting menu of seven courses. Starting with a curried butternut squash bisque, the meal progressed through a rice dish called arancini, flavored with saffron; then to a braised duck taco with fire-roasted pablano guacamole; a pan-seared scallop speared with a lardon of bacon; boneless Southern-fried chicken served on a sweet potato biscuit with sawmill gravy and finally a spicy, coffee-rubbed sirloin served over mashed parsnips. And then they brought out dessert.
Water judges who stayed the night in Berkeley Spring were treated to yet another brunch the day after the competition, at the Highlawn Inn.
Groaning after dinner, we made our way back to the judging table to taste two more flights of water. I was positively sloshing when it was all done. Winners of the event, including the winner of the crowd-judged water bottle packaging competition, are at berkeleysprings.com/water.
After the judging came the rush. At the end of the evening, the dozens of carefully, artfully arranged water bottles that make up the event’s décor are up for grabs. And the crowd takes that literally. What takes event organizer Jeanne Mozier hours to arrange takes the crowd minutes to grab and stash.
And then, it’s all over but the mop-up.
—Maggie Wolff Peterson has been writing about the Eastern Panhandle for 30 years.