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How America's Only Water Sommelier Is Changing the Way People Taste H20

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What it means to be a water sommelier.

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Patina Restaurant Group

I am from northern Germany, right by the Danish border. I grew up with the North and Baltic Sea in front of me—I was raised by the water. As a child, when I would vacation with my parents, I would always taste tap water wherever we went. And I came to realize that tap waters in different cities tastes different.  This became the most interesting part about traveling for me— sampling different tap waters.

I realized that we have to give people options when it comes to the healthiest beverage on this planet and thus I created my first water menu.

In 2005, I took a job in Berlin at a Michelin-starred restaurant named First Floor and one night a guest came up to me and said, "So Martin, you have over 1500 different wine labels but just one water brand. I do not like the taste of that water, what else can you offer me?" I looked at him and realized that in the restaurant business it’s all about options. We offer a selection of liquors, beers and wines, but when it comes to water, it’s mostly just sparkling, flat or tap. Not even the water brand is given. It occurred to me that we have to give people options when it comes to the healthiest beverage on this planet and thus I created my first water menu.

The First Floor water menu debuted in 2006, and through that experience I started to taste more and more water. Since then, I have exhaustively read and studied water, and in 2009 I wrote a book called Die Welt des Wassers, which translates to The World of Water. A year later, in 2010, I became certified as a water sommelier through the German Mineral Water Trade Association, an organization that represents the capital of Berlin in its water sources within the global bottled water industry. I would guess that there are around 100 people in the world who went through the certification program.

Water continues to be a gift in my life, giving me my O-1 Visa, which is reserved for foreigners who, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements." In my case, I earned the Visa for my knowledge of water and last year went on to obtain a Green Card.

I moved to Los Angeles in 2011 to work for Patina Restaurant Group, and I curated my first American water menu in 2013 for Ray’s & Stark Bar. It was a huge success. The restaurant's water sales jumped by 500 percent and have remained strong since then. Most recently we launched a water menu at Patina Group's namesake restaurant in Downtown LA, and we're slated to debut a water menu this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor concert venue which serves Patina Group food.

In creating Patina Group's water menus, I decided to only offer spring and mineral waters. It was my goal to showcase a wide variety of waters from around the world with varied tastes and with a strong focus on specialty bottles consumers could not purchase at a local grocery store. Currently, we are offering 20 different spring and mineral waters from 10 countries, and they range in price from $8 to $20. Our most expensive water is called Berg; a 15,000-year-old glacier water from Canada. It sells for $20 a bottle.

Why can water be so pricey? It is just like wine. Some waters are limited and difficult to procure, and certain bottles feature high-end glass in their design.

And yes, they do taste different. All waters from the Patina Group water menu come from the same source: rainwater. Falling from the sky onto the ground, the rainwater naturally filters through the layers of earth picking up different natural minerals along the way. Once again, like wine, one can actually taste the region and depth from which the water comes. It's called terroir. In the world of water, the mineral levels that create flavor are measured by TDS or total dissolved solids.

Earlier this year I started teaching water classes at both Ray's and Stark Bar and Patina based on the water flights I offer at those two restaurants. I found that more and more guests were interested in learning about water and understanding the differences in flavor.

Truth be told, attendees arrive with a sense of skepticism, tossing out the phrase "Only in LA." I had a similar reaction to my water menu in Germany; "Only in Berlin" comments were thrown around back then, too. But, I am used to people feeling weary of the program. Regardless, I love watching people learn about water as they explore the different options, notice the subtle changes in flavor, and leave without any doubt that water has taste.

As an example and way to showcase the varying TDS levels in water, during class we taste six different waters from around the world, with TDS levels ranging from 40 (Voss, Norway) to 7400 (Roi, Slovenia). The flavor runs the gamut from smooth (low TDS) to complex and from fruity to extreme salty and metallic (high TDS).

It is important to consider water in the context of how it pairs with food and cocktails. Most people do not realize that water has a huge impact on everything presented on a plate or in a glass. For example, water can lower acidity and tannins in wine just like the right ice cube in a cocktail can make spirits sing. Of course being German, I have to highlight the importance of the water in beer. As beer is almost 90 percent water, utilizing a good spring in production is vital. 

Overall, I give water the value it deserves. We all should drink water daily, stop wasting it, and honor it for what it is: an item of worth. Let’s change the way we view water on a global level through understanding and respect.


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Ray's & Stark Bar

5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036