It’s just water,” is the common refrain I hear, when I tell people that I judge water tastings. Sure, wine and food judging’s are splashy affairs covered by TV cameras and attended by thousands of people in a red carpet manner. But water? Every year at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, just outside of Washington D.C., the oldest and longest-running water competition in the world quietly goes about its business. The event was inaugurated in 1991 and has grown to receive coverage by CNN, Time Magazine, the BBC, and USA Today. The competition is broken down into five categories: bottled water, sparkling water, purified water, municipal water, and the people’s choice award of packaging design. Berkeley Springs is a logical choice to host a water competition since it was George Washington who laid out the town and aggressively promoted the natural spring water that still flows to the surface here. People have come to this spot for hundreds of years to drink, bathe and “take the waters.” Not to mention, Berkeley Springs, originally called Bath, is a pretty cool little town, with a vibrant arts community. The success of the Berkeley Springs competition is that it does not discriminate between waters. Natural waters get equal time with municipal water and carbonated water. At the competition the water is served to the judges in glass carafes so that the waters are evaluated blind. 


Author, Michael Cervin, judging for clarity


However, tasting water however is not as simple as it might seem. Water should always be served at room temperature since coldness can mask flaws. Additionally, the amount of trace minerals in waters will directly affect their taste and flavor. Silica gives a silky mouth feel, potassium lends itself towards a sweeter profile. And there are undesirables; too much iron content and water tastes metallic, hydrogen sulfate produces an odor similar to rotten eggs. Veteran food and wine writer Steven Keith has judged many wine competitions but was intrigued by water judging. “The waters are different; you pick up on subtle notes, aromas and even textures. It was fun, but it was harder than I expected,” he said. Waters are tasted under guidelines identical to those in a wine tasting and are rated for attributes including appearance, aroma, taste, and mouth feel. As the idea of a sense of place has become more common in the U.S., from wine to the slow-food movement, it’s easy to forget that water has the most important sense of place. Many of the waters represented have spent thousands of years as part of the hydrologic cycle, picking up trace minerals and elements specific to the strata of rock they are exposed to, thereby creating a unique water-print. That specific aroma, taste and content can only come from an exact spot, making some of the bottled waters unique, and the public is treated to an exemplary array of waters from around the world. 


The water rush


The competition sees municipal entries from across the U.S. and Canada, and even South Korea. Any municipality can enter and bragging rights are important. Bottled waters come from the U.S. and Canada and places you’d suspect like Switzerland, Australia, and France. But then there are waters from Bosnia, Argentina, and Columbia. China’s Kunlun Mountain water comes from the Tibetan Plateau at 9,000 feet, and there is Tasmanian rainwater. About 150 people gather for the main tasting; there are information booths, live music, food and convivial environment. But the majority anticipate the “water rush,” a public free-for-all with the hundreds of bottles of water that have been on display up for grabs to the most nimble. Should you find yourself near Berkeley Springs at the end of February, it’s worth a visit, if for no other reason than you will have a renewed appreciation for the most important beverage on earth.



By Michael Cervin,