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The Gulp War

In a state where too many towns don’t have clean tap water, the world’s largest water tasting is still going strong after nearly three decades

The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is billed as “the Academy Awards of Water.” Each year, hundreds of waters are submitted by cities, towns, and bottlers around the globe, hoping to win a gold medal and the modest bragging rights that accompany it: a declaration of superiority at the world’s longest-running and largest water-tasting event.

It began in 1990 like many deliberately engineered cultural events: to bring in tourists during the slow season. Jeanne Mozier, one of its creators, thought a water tasting was a clever way to leverage Berkeley Springs’ most notable local resource, the eponymous warm spring in which George Washington had once bathed. (Berkeley Springs State Park maintains the nation’s “only outdoor monument to presidential bathing.”) Becky Kimmons, another founder, had read about a water tasting in California, and reached out to its organizer, Arthur von Wiesenberger, who had recently published his second book on bottled water, H2O: The Guide to Quality Bottled Water. Von Wiesenberger, who lives in Santa Barbara, has remained Berkeley Springs’ official water master ever since, making the trek out to West Virginia each year.

In 1991, according to industry analysts at the Beverage Marketing Corporation, bottled-water sales in the United States were around 2 billion gallons, but by 1999, that figure had doubled; in 2016, the U.S. consumed around 12.8 billion gallons of bottled water. As bottled water expanded from a niche industry to a ubiquity in the United States, the Berkeley Springs event grew along with it. By 1999, more than 80 producers and municipalities were sending in their water to be judged, and by 2006, Berkeley Springs had surpassed 100 entrants. Ironically, it was ridicule that cemented its status as the world’s premiere water-tasting competition. When the city of Kent, Ohio, won the gold medal for its municipal water in 1995, it happened to coincide with the 25th-anniversary year of the massacre at Kent State University; the Tonight Show picked up the story and spoofed the town’s award-winning water. “All of a sudden, people were talking about the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting,” Jill Klein Rone, the event’s producer, told me.

There are no big brands at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting — no Dasani, FIJI, Evian, or Deer Park. The waters that compete tend to be local, niche, or super-high-end (think small-batch or mail-order only). There are four different categories, three of which are bottled — non-carbonated, purified, and sparkling — and municipal water. The bottled waters include all sorts, from ancient springs to waters that make claims of being specially pH-balanced or oxygen-rich. Alongside more typical fare, such as Hope Natural Spring Water from Virginia and even Berkeley Springs’ own purified drinking water, there’s Frequency H2O, from Australia, which is described by its manufacturer as “a synthesis of wisdom and evolution” that is “alive with the pulsations of the Universe” after being “put through a 2-stage kinetic energy process and infused at 528Hz, the Solfeggio frequency of LOVE.” Svalbarði’s Polar Iceberg water costs about $80 for a 750-milliliter bottle and literally comes from a melting iceberg off the Norwegian island of Svalbard.

For the past 28 years, the event has taken place in February, usually coinciding with the Academy Awards, to play up the “Oscars of water” angle. The current home of the event is a small ballroom in the Country Inn hotel in downtown Berkeley Springs, next to the historic spring and the small carved-out pool referred to as George Washington’s “bathtub.” After attending last year’s competition — mostly on a whim, because it was within a day’s drive of my home in Washington, D.C. — I was offered a spot as one of the 12 judges for 2018. Outside the inn were a couple of banners with stock photographs of a woman seductively drinking bottled water. Inside, at the front of the room, were the judges’ tables and an elaborately engineered display composed of hundreds of bottles of water. The structure, which I was told takes up to nine hours to build, contained bottles of all shapes and sizes arranged in what looked a bit like a wave or swoosh, meant to evoke rushing water.

Judges for the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting do not have to be water connoisseurs; the primary qualifications appear to be having an interest in drinking water, attending an hour-long training session, and if possible, publishing a story about the event. (Hello.) The paraphernalia for evaluating water is surprisingly simple: There’s some water, a glass, and a standardized scorecard, published by von Wiesenberger for his 1995 book The Taste of Water, which judges use to grade each water on its appearance, smell, mouthfeel, and taste.

Like wine, tasting water is a look, sniff, and sip process. The water should be clear and free of odor; its mouthfeel should be “refreshing.” Taste is more complicated: A good water can be tasteless, or could have a “pleasant” taste. (“Pleasant” was left conspicuously undefined in the training materials — only that there should be no “off taste,” such as chlorine or sulfur.) While appearance and smell are scored on a five-point scale, up to 10 points can be awarded in the taste category. Judges then match a list of 14 phrases to the water. For example, “This water has NO SPECIAL TASTE at all. I would be happy to have it for my everyday drinking water,” or, “This water has a BAD TASTE. I would drink it only in a serious emergency.” The general idea, at any rate, is that water should look, smell, and taste as much like nothing as possible.

After a brief lecture on the art of tasting water, the judges were told to take a seat for a test run. Years ago, when I dated someone who worked at a wine store, I got into wine tasting and started carrying around a little card with various adjectives to describe wine, so I was excited to apply those to water. When I took my place and readied my scorecard, there were three waters in front of me, in identical stemmed wine glasses. The first two looked the same — like water. The third seemed carbonated. I held the glasses up to the light to see that there was no color or sediment. I tried to smell them, but there was nothing to smell. And they were all the same temperature — room temperature, not chilled, in order to accentuate the taste. I worried for a second that I’d be told it was a trick, and that all of the waters were actually the same, then closed my eyes and took a sip from the first glass.

I swirled the water around in my mouth and started assessing, treating the water like a fine wine: How did it feel in my mouth? Did it feel like anything? I started to think I could taste the temperature. I imagined I was tasting the hydrogen and the oxygen. Was that the taste of the absence of thirst? What does thirst taste like? I took another sip, then immediately swallowed. Did I feel refreshed? Was my thirst quenched? If the manufacturer had done its job, the perfect water should be, by definition, unremarkable; I would have no remarks, right? How should I score nothingness on a scale of 1 to 5?

After reminding myself that it was just water, I relaxed. I realized I could detect minor differences among the samples: One tasted of chlorine, which is common in tap water; one tasted like nothing at all; and one was a bit fizzy. It turned out that the first was a municipal water, the second was bottled spring water, and the third was indeed a sparkling water. I, in fact, had the palate to be a professional water taster. After the practice tasting, we were given our official water-taster certificates, signed by von Wiesenberger, and told to take a 30-minute break, during which we should not eat, drink, smoke, or put on perfume or cologne.

I stepped out of the Country Inn into the cold February rain and walked over to George Washington’s Bathtub to see the spring’s famed spigot. A man was filling up several gallon-sized jugs. After he filled them, he walked back to his truck and drove away. Apparently this is not uncommon; people come from all around the area to get spring water. While outside, I broke the rules and smoked a cigarette. I went back to my hotel room and quickly brushed my teeth and spent several long minutes rinsing my mouth out with tap water.

The Friday before the tasting, the organizers held an all-day water-industry seminar; speakers were invited to talk about any aspect of water, including water scarcity. Outside, there was a lone protester passing out a sheet of paper explaining the environmental consequences of bottled water. “The newspaper wouldn’t print this, even if I paid for it,” he said, handing me a sheet of paper. It was an open letter discussing the connections between plastic bottles and natural gas fracking, though his chief complaint about the Berkeley Springs event was how it honored the bottled water industry — which, true.

One group at the seminar discussed a project to help bring clean water to refugee camps. They had, so far, been unsuccessful in their search for funders, and none were among the sparse audience of 10 to 15 people at the Country Inn. Another talk, the last one of the day, was a panel discussion led by Henry “Bob” Hidell, founder and chairman of the drinking-water industry consulting firm Hidell International, who received a lifetime achievement award from the competition organizers in 2013, dubbed an “ask me anything” about water. The discussion turned to the future of water, as I learned that many of the talks at this seminar do, to the mild chagrin of its organizers.

One panelist, Jane Lazgin, who worked for Nestle Waters for 29 years, said that, if nothing changes, demand for fresh water will outpace the global supply by 40 percent within 18 years. “We are in very urgent times,” Lazgin said. “We need a solution fast. I don’t have a solution.” Instead, she hoped that advancements in artificial intelligence would be a path forward. “It will transcend the way we look at the world, and I would hope that they bring an intelligence and technology to helping to use resources the best way as possible,” she said.

The word “Michigan” was conspicuously absent from Lazgin’s remarks, given that Nestle has been battling with environmental advocates who are opposed to the corporation’s plan to increase the amount it pumps and sells from a spring in western Michigan to 576,000 gallons of water per day — all while residents of Flint, four years since its water crisis began, continue to drink bottled water due to lead contamination.

It’s probably not surprising that the seminar portion of the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is so lightly attended. No one wants to be told the grim truth that much of the world, even here in the United States, lacks access to clean water, or of a Mad Max future with nations fighting wars over it. At least, no one wants to hear it in a hotel ballroom, next to an elaborate display of thousands of dollars of fancy bottles evoking the image of pure, flowing water.

The next afternoon, on Saturday, the tastings began. Over the course of the event I tried 78 different waters. There were 15 municipal, 10 bottled purified, 42 bottled non-carbonated, and 11 bottled sparkling. From my perch in the back-left corner of the stage, I could see a dozen or so people in the room who had come to watch. Rone and von Wiesenberger gave brief remarks introducing the event and the judges. With the words “let the waters flow!” the tasting began. I readied my palate for the first round, municipal water. I sipped each sample, washed it around in my mouth and considered how I would describe it. It was easier than the practice round — some of them tasted distinctly of chlorine or had a metallic aftertaste. These “off-tastes,” as they are called, can be caused by the microbial, chemical, and mineral makeup of its source, or the sanitization that public water must undergo. I was noticing more subtle hints of flavor, like a bit of sweetness or a hint of saltiness. This is what it feels like to be a real water judge, I thought.

Next was purified water, which was much harder to rate. They are, by definition, stripped of almost everything, including anything that might give it a distinctive taste or mouthfeel, like minerals. I thought I could detect a minor difference here or there, but I was likely imagining it, or it was a hint of plastic from the bottle it had come in. Bottled non-sparkling water was somehow even more difficult to parse. These waters had more of a taste than the purified bottles — they retained some characteristics of their source, but it was hard to decide whether the “taste” I was sensing was good or bad. I fell back on the idea that less is more. I turned to the basket of water crackers, which von Wiesenberger explained were there because drinking so much water removes saliva and salts from the mouth, making it harder to taste.

After a while, though, it became nearly impossible to tell the waters apart. There was no difference in color. They were all odorless. They were all, on first sip, nearly identical. When the goal is absolute purity and tastelessness, any distinguishing factor becomes a distraction, a cause for demerits. But stripped of all the marketing, all the gimmickry, the flashy bottle – it was impossible to identify anything. After all, how would I know if I was drinking European iceberg water or bottled tap water from Ohio if I couldn’t see a price tag? In a blind test, luxury water tastes just like a commodity.

I also hadn’t paced myself well — early on I drank the entire three-ounce sample. As I reached the end, with my head pounding and stomach full, I could barely take a sip of each. I searched for adjectives, but felt like Mitt Romney famously describing lemonade as “lemon, wet, good.” When I was poured the final water of the fanciest flight, the sparkling waters, I was very glad to be near the finish. I turned to the judge next to me and told her I was never going to drink water again.

I tried to grade these waters as best as I could, but I struggled to separate the idea of water as a necessity for life and water as a luxury good that was sipped under spotlights by people like me who were designated as “certified water tasters.” The more samples I had tasted, the more absurd the whole thing felt. It was all water, it all tasted like water, and since it was a blind tasting, I would never even know if the waters I liked were winners or losers. After scoring the last sample, I got up and immediately headed for the bathroom. Whether it’s a $100 bottle or a $2 bottle, it all comes out just the same.

One of the judges at the 2017 tasting was Roxy Todd, a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, who had been working on a story, part of her series Inside Appalachia, about the ongoing water crisis in coal country. Just before the winners were announced, Todd was invited to the front of the room to say a word about coal towns and their lack of safe drinking water. She gave the basic outline: Too many towns no longer had access to clean tap water after their mines shut down. The mining companies had run everything, including the water systems, and when they left, no one remained to maintain the system. Todd made a point to say how grateful everyone in the room should be for access to all of this great water. The audience, unsure of how to respond, offered tepid applause.

Garwood, West Virginia, located about 300 miles from Berkeley Springs, is one of those towns. Its water source is a nearby abandoned mine, and the local utility, Garwood Community Water, has been designated “intractable” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — that’s a technical term for an abandoned water system, one that has no administrative or operational staff or point of contact. The Garwood water system was set up after the nearby coal mine shut down. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the system worked — locals managed it and ensured the water was properly treated. In 2014, the operator of the Garwood water system stopped filing the required paperwork to show the water was safe. By this time, the system was run by a skeleton staff that could no longer be reached by authorities (or customers). As a result, in 2015, the state was forced to issue a boil-water advisory, which remains in place today. The water still flowed, though sometimes the pumps or other equipment would go down for weeks at a time, leaving taps dry. Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute, who has researched the quality of water from abandoned mines, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2017 that the Garwood mine water was of decent quality for purposes other than human consumption, but levels of coliform, a bacteria, exceeded EPA standards, making it unhealthy to drink unless boiled.

The story repeats itself across many small towns in West Virginia. A mine shuts down; the pumps that prevent flooding stop pumping; and rainwater and groundwater fill the mine, making it a source of water. If treated, it can be safe. As these systems — and the people who manage them — age, the conditions deteriorate. It would be enormously expensive to build new water infrastructure for these old coal towns, and there’s no money or political will to do so. The coal industry is not coming back to these towns. What remains are patchwork fixes, such as tying a town into the nearest county water system. That is expensive and can take years. In the meantime, residents are forced to use bottled water for cooking and drinking, and rely on potentially unsafe mine water for everything else. In Garwood, like in dozens of other communities around the country, bottled water both is a commodity and a lifeline.

It took the organizers an hour or so to count all of the votes and certify the winners. All the while, the ballroom began filling up. By the time the awards were announced, there were roughly 100 people in the ballroom, with more streaming in. Right before the winners were revealed, Rone and von Wiesenberger introduced the former Nestle executive, Jane Lazgin, as the year’s winner of the achievement award. As Lazgin spoke of the massive growth of bottled water and the success of Nestle, I saw a woman in the audience frown as she searched “Nestle corporate responsibility” on her phone.

When the results came in, they were read quickly. There was no real discussion about the winners, beyond noting where in the world they were from or if they had won previously. The best municipal water was from British Columbia. The water that claimed to be infused with sound waves at the frequency of love won the best bottled non-carbonated water. Ophora Water, from California, won best purified water, and Antipodes from New Zealand won best sparkling water. I had at some point tasted all of them.

Many in the crowd came for what happens at the very end of the event — the annual “water rush,” where spectators are invited to attack the ornate display of bottled water and take as much as they can grab. It’s the Berkeley Springs version of Supermarket Sweep. The room swells in anticipation. Many who came just for the finale were local, from Berkeley Springs or other nearby towns. They don’t come for the industry seminar or to watch the judges sniff and sip the water. They come just for this. “It’s good family fun,” one attendee told me as she inched closer to the bottles. Families with children readied their grocery bags.

Rone and von Wiesenberger prefaced the water rush with a warning to be careful and not to trample anyone. Following a brief countdown, it was on. Dozens of people ran up to snatch as many waters as possible. Children scrambled, weaving between adults, grabbing as much as they could. The fancier the bottle, the faster it was picked off. The display, carefully constructed over the course of hours, evaporated within minutes — “like a Tibetan sand mandala,” according to Mozier — the bottles disappearing into arms, suitcases, and grocery bags. One child, probably younger than 10, dragged a reusable grocery bag bursting with water across the floor. As people trudged out to their cars with their hauls, I gawked at the aftermath of the frenzy. It was a fitting end to an event meant to celebrate water as a precious natural resource: a rehearsal of what’s to come.

Dave Stroup is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
Greta Kotz is a visual artist, and working graphic designer.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter