Experts say the nuances of bottled water are like wine
Forget eight glasses a day. Have you had your 28 gallons a year?
This is not about basic hydration. This is how much bottled water — the stuff that costs more per gallon than the high-octane stuff you complain about at the pump — the typical American consumed last year.
And yet, even with all the recent attention to the sourcing and ecological impact of this ubiquitous beverage, most Americans know little about the $11 billion worth of water they drink a year, never mind how or why to evaluate it.
But they should, say experts who compare bottled water to wine.
“We usually think it’s all the same, but it isn’t because of trace elements, minerals, packaging,” says Arthur von Wiesenberger, a consultant who may be to water what Robert Parker is to wine.
“Water is an amazing thing,” he says. “It will reach out and touch something.”
And the something that it touches will give it a distinct taste and even “mouthfeel,” in the parlance of water tasters.
Potassium, for example, may give water a sweet taste. Silica may impart silkiness. Calcium can give the water a lactic taste some people find refreshing. Others enjoy the cleansing quality of water with a high sodium content.
“Bottled water is the next wine,” says bottled water expert Michael Mascha, founder of finewaters.com, a site dedicated to cataloging and evaluating bottled waters from around the world.
“People are starting to pay attention to where water is coming from. In a general sense, bottled water is making the transition from a commodity product to one with terroir,” he says.
Long a staple of European tables, bottled water was popular in the U.S. during the early 20th century, but vanished during the Great Depression. It resurfaced during the 1970s, when Perrier was photographed in the hands of glitterati.
During the past five years, consumption surged 59 percent, making it America’s favorite beverage after soda. In 2006, Americans quaffed 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water.
In the United States, consumers can now pick from about 350 varieties of bottled water, ranging from purified tap water (such as Coca-Cola Co.’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina), to waters bottled from particular sources.
Sourced waters can come from springs (such as the sparkling San Pellegrino or the still Evian), underground reservoirs called aquifers (such as Fiji and Voss), or even from glaciers or harvested rainfall.
And each source, say connoisseurs, has its own fingerprint.
In Philadelphia, Water Works Restaurant and Lounge, which opened last year, stocks nearly two dozen waters from around the world and caters to a regular crowd of newly minted connoisseurs willing to pay up to $55 a bottle.
“We have several regular customers who come in and have to have their water and it’s chilled to a different degree,” says the restaurant’s guest services coordinator Vera Masi.
“Some people will taste it and actually say ‘This is woodsy’ or ‘This is crisp,'” she says. But, she adds, many other customers use a less sophisticated screen: packaging.
The restaurant’s most expensive water, the $55 Bling H20, comes in a vessel encrusted with Swarovski rhinestones. “I guarantee you that every single person who orders the Bling takes the bottle home with them,” she says.
How to read a water bottle label
Some key terms from water bottle labels and what they mean.
The labels usually indicate the source of the water. “Purified” usually is municipal water that has been processed using distillation, deionization or reverse osmosis. “Artesian” water comes from an aquifer. “Spring” water bubbles naturally from a spring, or is extracted. The location of the spring will be identified.
— Mineral qualities
The label should indicate Total Dissolved Solids, or TDS. This refers to elements dissolved in the water and can range from 0 ppm (parts per million), as in distilled water, to more than 3,000 ppm in some European waters.
The higher the TDS, the more minerals and salts are present, suggesting a more distinct taste. In the U.S., only waters with TDS of at least 250 ppm can be called “mineral water.” No minerals may be added to this water.
“Low mineral content” means the TDS is below 500 ppm. “High mineral content” is greater than 1,500 ppm.
In sparkling waters, carbonation varies from gently effervescent to aggressive and bubbly.
Carbonation is measured in milligrams of carbon dioxide and some labels will indicate the levels, from low (2 milligrams per liter) to high (10 milligrams per liter).
Tips for appreciating bottled water
Some tips on how to get the most refreshment — and flavor — from bottled water.
— Personal taste
Water preference will vary from person to person. But it also should vary meal to meal.
To discover what you like, experts suggest a vertical tasting. Sample several waters with different but related qualities, such as high and low mineral contents or low and high carbonation.
Avoid coffee, alcohol, chewing gum, spicy foods and smoking at least 30 minutes before tasting. Don’t wear perfume, which can interfere with smell and taste.
Water is best appreciated at 52 F. The nuances of great water can be masked by too much chilling. The easiest way to get the right temperature is to remove it from the refrigerator 30 to 45 minutes before serving.
— Match the water to the food
Still (sometimes called flat) or lightly carbonated waters go best with meals. Avoid highly carbonated waters; gas at the table is pleasant for no one.
Heavily mineralized waters stand up well to meats and stews, while lighter waters pair well with fish and delicate dishes. A carbonated water with high mineral content can act like baking soda, making an excellent digestif.
— The Associated Press