The art of judging water

With the shout of, “Let the waters flow,” we were off.

I was sitting at the judges table in front of a packed room at the 24th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Competition -- the world’s largest and longest running water tasting competition.

My job, along with nine other judges, was to select the best water among dozens of entries from 18 states, three Canadian provinces and 12 foreign nations, based on appearance, odor, flavor, texture and aftertaste.

Surrounded by seasoned H20 sniffers and worldwide water experts in this small West Virginia town, I wonder what on earth I’m doing here. Sure I like water, but when I go to a restaurant, I am perfectly happy to drink tap, and can’t tell my Perrier from my Pellegrino.

Which is exactly why I was selected. Even as water scarcity rises and issues like West Virginia’s disastrous chemical spill on the other side of the state dominate headlines, water in the U.S. is still cheap and plentiful, and, like most Americans, I’m indifferent to it.

But with this attitude, according to fellow judge and the world’s leading water sommelier, Martin Riese, I am missing out.

“Water has a big impact on your food and wine. You need to have good water to have a good product,” he said.

Riese says the key to water’s taste is Total Dissolved Solids, or TDS, which is essentially everything in your water, such as minerals, metals and salts, minus the suspended solids. You pick water based on the TDS for what taste you’re looking for, even for what you’re doing.

“You drink water with a high TDS or mineral-content when you exercise, and water with a low TDS for the couch,” Riese explains.

A special water for when I want to be a couch potato? I think I am going to like this competition.

Riese works for the Patina Group of Restaurants and created a 20-item water menu for Los Angeles’ Ray's and Stark Bar, featuring waters from ten different countries with prices ranging from $8 to $20 per bottle. He recently created his own blend of water -- not part of the competition -- cleverly called Beverly Hills 90H20. It comes in sleek numbered glass bottles that sell in his restaurant for $16.

“I am not selling vodka to children.  This is something good for you,” he said. “This is fun!”

Passion for water and how to manage and protect its resources run deep with the other judges. Berkley Springs is home to warm mineral springs and baths that have been popular since before the days of George Washington – and the town started the event to promote and protect their natural springs. Along with Riese, other judges include Scott Finn, executive director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Michael Cervin, editor of BottledWaterWeb, and David Lillard, part of West Virginia Rivers Coalition's Choose Clean Water Campaign. Special speakers included Henry Hidell, one of the world’s foremost water experts.

We received training from our esteemed water master, Arthur von Wiesenberger, a celebrated food and beverage consultant and author and broadcaster, which included a brief history of water and what to look out for.

The competition is divided into four categories: municipal tap water, purified, carbonated and bottled mineral water.

We were assured Charleston has not been submitted, and the worst of the potential entries – cloudy water or liquid with gremlins floating in it – had been removed from competition.

When the judging began, we approached our task much like wine connoisseurs – lifting our glass to check clarity and color. We stuck our nose inside the glass and sniffed loudly looking for any telltale smells of chlorination or plastic.

We noted characteristics such as taste, mouth feel, aftertaste – and in the case of carbonated water – the aggressiveness of the bubbles, on our score sheet.

Public water was first category and it provided the most variety. Most gave off a chlorinated smell –and while some were delicious, others were nauseating and left a metallic taste in my mouth.

The bottled and purified categories were of high standard and tricky to differentiate, demanding full concentration.

My neighbor, longtime judge and news director of NBC affiliate WHAG, Mark Kraham, kept the bathroom jokes flowing -- although we were careful not to discuss our personal choices.

Water crackers were on hand to help reset our palettes.

The final round was the carbonated waters. More than the other flights, this one required small sips and plenty of time to rest between samples.

This one round made you feel like you may float away like Violet Beauregarde in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

In the crowded room were television crews, devoted water fans who come to the event every year (who knew these people exist?), water bottle collectors, and curious bystanders hoping to cash in on some free water.

Fellow journalist and judge Michael Cervin commented that the number of spectators were more than in past years, possibly due to interest following the Charleston spill.

After a day of sipping, sniffing and slurping, our jobs were done and the tally began.  A short time later, the winners were announced.

Canadian tap water from Clearbrook, British Columbia, took the prize for best municipal water in the world. The top tap water in the U.S. came from Santa Ana, Calif., In the bottled water competition, Castle Rock Water from Dunsmuir, Calif., beat 32 other entries for the title of world's best. Eldorado Natural Spring Water of Eldorado, Colo., and first time entrant, Samaria Natural Springs Water from Crete, Greece, tied for second place.

Click here for all the winners.