Judging Water at Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Competition

April 7, 2017

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Highlights editor participates in blind taste-test to choose winners

<i>WEF Highlights</i> Editor Jennifer Fulcher (center) joins other judges to taste tap, bottled, and sparkling water at the Berkeley Springs (W.Va.) International Water Tasting competition. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

WEF Highlights Editor Jennifer Fulcher (center) joins other judges to taste tap, bottled, and sparkling water at the Berkeley Springs (W.Va.) International Water Tasting competition. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

You may ask yourself how anyone can tell the difference in taste between water, especially when given 20 different samples; but that is exactly the task presented to me as a judge for the 27th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition in West Virginia.

Valuing the differences in the taste of water

Many things are valued and tasted for flavor — wine, food, and beer. Water may not jump to the top of mind when you think of conducting a taste-test. However, the value of good water does not escape those familiar with Berkeley Springs (W.Va.).

Judges tasted water samples for appearance, odor, mouth feel, aftertaste, overall taste, and overall impression for the competition. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

Judges tasted water samples for appearance, odor, mouth feel, aftertaste, overall taste, and overall impression for the competition. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

The town, founded as Medicine Springs in 1747, boasts a bountiful spring that provides water for a historic spa as well as for anyone with a container to take the water home. Those with food and beverage businesses even travel to the town’s public spout to collect spring water for such uses as brewing coffee. This provides the perfect setting for the world’s largest water-tasting competition, held on Feb. 25 this year.

Preparing for an important role

After a 45-minute training led by Arthur von Wiesenberger, the competition’s “water master,” judges were presented with certificates recognizing them as water tasters. WEF Photo, Jennifer Fulcher.

After a 45-minute training led by Arthur von Wiesenberger, the competition’s “water master,” judges were presented with certificates recognizing them as water tasters. WEF Photo, Jennifer Fulcher.

The importance of being a judge became apparent when we were asked to avoid wearing strong scents, eating spicy and pungent foods, and drinking strong beverages such as coffee the day of the competition, as well as to stop eating, drinking, and chewing gum 30 minutes before judging.

Judges gathered for a 45-minute training to become “certified water tasters.” Arthur von Wiesenberger, the event’s “water master,” hosted the training and discussed specific qualities to look for in the water samples. For each sample, we were asked to use all our senses and assign a score in six different categories:

  • appearance,
  • odor,
  • mouth feel,
  • aftertaste,
  • overall taste, and
  • overall impressions.

For appearance, we examined samples for clarity and lack of color. To detect any odor, von Wiesenberger recommended that we take three short sniffs right above the water to identify any chemicals or minerals in the sample. A light and refreshing mouth feel and a pleasant aftertaste were preferred.

Fulcher prepares to judge the municipal water category of the competition. WEF Photo, Fulcher.

Fulcher prepares to judge the municipal water category of the competition. WEF Photo, Fulcher.

Ultimately, the decisions for scoring came down to one thing — personal preference. Von Wiesenberger explained that people often like the water they are used to, and that’s why event organizers invite judges from various locations. Europeans often like water with strong mineral tastes, while Americans prefer absence of taste or subtle flavors in water, von Wiesenberger said.

This year, 102 water samples were submitted to the competition. Because that would be too many for a single set of judges to taste in one day, a separate set of preliminary-round judges narrowed contestants down to 66 samples. Entries were divided into the categories of

  • municipal water,
  • purified drinking water,
  • bottled noncarbonated, and
  • sparkling.

Taking the stage to choose a winner

Extra bottles of water submitted for the competition was put on display for the water rush event at the end of the night. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

Extra bottles of water submitted for the competition was put on display for the water rush event at the end of the night. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

At 2:30 p.m., I joined 10 other judges on the stage. We found our seats under bright stage lights at long tables covered with white linen. Rows of empty, long-stemmed glasses sat on numbered circles.

Water servers with unmarked containers emerged from behind a curtain that obstructed the water entries from view. They filled the glass sitting over the corresponding number for each sample. As glass after glass was filled with room-temperature water samples, the task of choosing a favorite seemed increasingly daunting. But I could identify differences between samples, when tasting one after the other.

Spectators eagerly await the water rush for their chance to take bottled water home. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

Spectators eagerly await the water rush for their chance to take bottled water home. Photo courtesy of Travel Berkeley Springs.

After tasting 20 municipal water samples, our places were cleared and set for 12 purified drinking water samples. To avoid getting waterlogged, judges were given a break, and we returned in the evening. For the final two categories, we tasted 20 bottled, noncarbonated water samples, then 14 sparking water samples. Unlike the rest, sparkling water was served chilled and was scored for carbonation.

Anyone attending the competition had the chance to submit votes for best packaging. Svalbaroi Polar Iceberg Water, Longyearbyen, Norway labeled as “B” placed first

Anyone attending the competition had the chance to submit votes for best packaging. Svalbaroi Polar Iceberg Water, Longyearbyen, Norway labeled as “B” placed first

As we waited for scores to be tallied, the room filled with people, many of whom were equipped with a variety of bags. These members of the public were preparing for the water rush, an event at the end of the night where the public is invited to take displayed bottled water home.

As spectators eagerly awaited the water rush, representatives for organizations supplying the water contestants eagerly awaited the results. When winners were announced, these representatives were overjoyed, sharing handshakes and hugs. Event organizers listed the top five entries in each category as well as the top three winners of best packaging. The first-place winners for each category were

  • Village of Montpelier, Ohio, for best municipal water;
  • Zaros Natural Water (Crete, Greece) and AlphaPure Springs Water (Ocala, Fla.) tied for best bottled water;
  • Tesanjski Kiseljak (Tesanj, Bosnia) and Touch Sparkling Mineral Water (Marchand, Manitoba) tied for best sparkling water; and
  • GP8 Oxygen Water (Toronto) for best purified drinking water.

For more information about the competition, read the February 2016 WEF Highlights article, “Putting Water to the Taste Test.”

— Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights

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