Inside the Very Real (And Very Complicated) World of Luxury Water Collectors | Bon Appétit

Inside the Very Real (And Very Complicated) World of Luxury Water Collectors | Bon Appétit


Inside the Very Real (and Very Complicated) World of Luxury Water Collectors

Water sommeliers taste and collect expensive bottled water as if they’re fine wines. What does it mean to elevate water to this level of luxury?

My boyfriend has a lot of opinions about the water we drink. It wasn’t always this way. Once he, like me, was a free spirit who hardly noticed if the bottle we picked up was Perrier or Saratoga. But everything changed when he returned to the US after spending three months living in Berlin. There, he told me, his eyes lighting up, they had entire stores dedicated to different types of sparkling and still water—rows and rows of different brands, all offering specific levels of carbonation or mineral content. Now his water choice is deliberate: He reaches for the ridged bottle of Gerolsteiner for its tiny bubbles that prick that back of your throat, if it’s available. Otherwise he goes for the iconic green S.Pellegrino, though its big, sloppy bubbles mean it’s less than ideal. 

As it turns out, he’s not alone in taking his water seriously. The water sommelier movement—yes, that’s the term—has been growing in the US and around the world for years now. In fact, some argue that the seltzer boom has opened a door for a mineral water renaissance. These water sommeliers taste bottled waters as if they’re fine wines, expounding upon the waters terroir and “virginality,” or a water’s level of protection from its surroundings. They help to design bespoke water menus for restaurants; they judge contests in which bottled waters compete on taste, texture, and mouthfeel; and they collect bottles of tasteless water from icebergs that cost as much as $300 (more on that later). Some of them have even led Zac Efron and Anna Kendrick through a lengthy water-tasting class. Swishing, swirling, and slurping are par for the course in the fine water universe. It all sounded, quite frankly, ridiculous to me. Which meant, of course, that I had to learn every single thing about it.

Fine water, as I quickly learned it’s called, is an industry that spans the globe. Sparkling, seltzer, and mineral water sales reached $3.5 billion in sales between 2019 and 2020 in the US alone. Water sommeliers are trained in programs around the world—from the Associazione Degustatori Acque Minerali in Italy to the Doemens Academy in Germany to Japan’s Aqua Sommelier Association. In the US the Fine Water Academy has seen a steady increase in attendance of approximately 10% to 12% per year since its founding in 2018, with a notable spike in 2020. Currently, the self-directed course that lasts about two months has 50 students in attendance. Program websites describe rigorous training, the curricula detailing hours of water tastings, final exams, and, in the case of the Doemens, many, many “hydration breaks”—short recesses to sip on your favorite water. 

I remained skeptical. Water, to me, tastes like water. The only texture I can describe it having is “wet.” How could someone justify spending hundreds on bottled water when entire communities, like those in East Palestine and Philadelphia, are affected by contaminated water supplies? What could compel someone to spend weeks at the Doemens Academy in suburban Germany sipping on different waters? What does it mean to elevate something like water, a fundamental human need and a growing scarcity in some places, to this level of luxury? 

The first step to understanding was to speak directly to a water sommelier. Not the media-savvy Fine Water Academy cofounder Martin Riese, who may be the closest thing to a celebrity water sommelier and would no doubt have polished answers, but a regular water sommelier (whatever that means). I found Anistacia Barrak-Barber, a former documentary filmmaker turned water sommelier, using a water sommelier locator hosted by the Water Sommelier Union. I wanted to speak to someone like Barrak-Barber, who was focused on individual tastings and water education, as opposed to her peers who may focus more on developing water menus at expensive restaurants or judging water competitions.

I was looking for a water zealot, and a few minutes into our first interview it was clear I had found one. She spoke animatedly about water purity and the healing effect mineral water can have on the body, and when we finally got down to it, she’d always been fascinated by water. “I love drinking mineral waters, and I was always trying whatever was available on the shelves,” Barrak-Barber said. “And so I thought this was absolutely fascinating.”

This was a common sentiment from water sommeliers. Ashley Epperson, co-owner of the fine water supplier Salacious Drinks, began her water career as an amateur enthusiast too. “I met my partner 12 years ago, and we used to just travel around and try different waters,” Epperson said. She and her partner were attracted to the aesthetics—interesting-looking bottles that weren’t available locally. Eventually, they opened up Salacious Drinks as an online fine water retailer, offering 48 kinds of water. “For the first couple of years, people didn’t understand what we're doing,” Epperson said. “They were like, ‘You want to do what?’” But as the fine water movement has grown, Salacious Drinks has grown with it. When Epperson started the business in 2016, she ran it as a side hustle, selling mostly wholesale, and dog-walking and house-sitting to help pay the bills. In its first year Salacious Drinks did $9,000 in sales. Last year that number reached $310,000, with an estimated 90% of sales credited to individual consumers who buy bottles of water that range in price from $2 to $140. It’s a measly sum compared to giants like Nestlé Waters, which did over $4 billion in sales in 2021, but it’s allowed Epperson to make fine water her full-time career.

It may start as a hobby, but becoming a water sommelier is serious work. Both Epperson and Barrak-Barber described the intensity of the training programs they attended at the Fine Water Academy and Doemens Academy, respectively. For Epperson, a 16-week, self-directed course priced at $2,200. For Barrak-Barber, a two-week intensive, which cost $2,500 not including lodging and travel costs to Germany. The class required 10 to 12 hours of study a day, she said. “Rigorous training, and a lot of tears preparing for the final exams,” Barrak-Barber said. “It was way more intense than I thought it was going to be.” 

These courses give students foundational lessons in water tasting: Does the water feel oily or clean on your tongue? What flavors do the blend of minerals in the water, or total dissolved solids (TDS), leave on your palate? Students also learn and are tested on how to pair waters with food—a very mineral-forward water can bring out the saltiness of a steak, for instance, but its strong flavor would overpower most fish dishes. They learn the proper procedure for presenting and pouring water out of bottles tableside—make sure the label is facing out, hold a glass by its stem so that the heat from your hands won't warm the water, and never, ever use ice cubes because their impurities would pollute the taste of the water. “It’s a lot like wine,” Barrak-Barber said. 

Michael Mascha, a name that came up in nearly every one of my interviews as the father of the American fine water scene, and the man who literally wrote the book on it, spoke similarly about fine water. “I think water has the original terroir, because ‘terroir’ means ‘of the earth’ and water really comes from the rarth,” the Fine Water Academy cofounder said. A term typically used to talk about wines, here terroir refers to a water’s journey from rainfall to mineral absorption in the soil to the spring. 

If this is all sounding very serious and, dare I say, pretentious, I don’t blame you. It’s water, after all. But for these water devotees, the drink is more than a means to hydration. It’s an art form, a tapestry of taste, texture, and sensation. After speaking with three water professionals (all of whom seemed to know each other), I started to get a sense of the draw fine water could have. I learned some waters have absorbed the unique blend of minerals present in their particular aquifer for thousands of years, developing a distinctive flavor and level of carbonation. I learned each source allegedly produces a bottle and a tasting experience that can’t be found anywhere else. I couldn’t help myself; I wanted to taste for myself. I had been water-pilled.  

Short of spending weeks in a water sommelier tasting program (which, to be clear, I would have done if not for the objections of my editors) the best way to dip a toe into the world of water sommeliers is to schedule an $125 tasting with a certified water sommelier. Avital: Food + Drink Experiences, founded by Avital Ungar in 2011, offers virtual tastings, which is how I found myself staring at five large glass bottles of mineral water on one overcast Tuesday afternoon. Ungar herself, a water sommelier based in San Francisco who makes a living leading specialty food tours and events, walked me through the tasting process via video chat.

First, we tried Lurisia, a still water sourced from the Italian Alps with a low TDS level, meaning it has a relatively small amount of minerals per bottle. It’s around $5 per bottle, a middle of the road price. I took a sip, trying to ensure I paid attention to the texture and taste. It tasted like water. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe it. But then Ungar asked me how I would describe this water, and I heard myself calling it “soft,” and “mellow.” I heard myself describing the way it almost coated your tongue. I felt myself slipping into the same place I went during my days as a waiter when I was asked to describe an unfamiliar bottle of wine to a table—it’s not that I was lying, exactly, but I was just short of doing free association. The water did feel sort of pillowy. It did kind of leave a soft coating on my tongue, I guess. 

Next, we tasted sips of naturally carbonated Vichy Catalan, notably a Bon Appétit staff favorite, which touts itself as the most popular carbonated water in Spain. The aquifers are filled with rainwater that fell 10,000 years ago, and the water from its springs have been lauded for their health benefits for centuries. My first sip was a wet slap of flavor: salty, earthy, rich bordering on unctuous. The kind of water you’d pair with a rare ribeye. The Vichy Catalan had the highest TDS of all the waters we tasted, and I could actually feel it sitting heavily in my stomach after each sip. 

Ungar led me through three more waters, gesturing excitedly mid-sip when I correctly identified the Hildon as chalky (it comes from an aquifer underneath a chalky hillside, and it’s slightly dry, earthy taste wasn’t entirely unpleasant), and thoughtfully going back and forth with me about the especially tiny bubbles of Saint-Geron, which gave my tongue just the right amount of tingle. Over the course of my tasting, the waters were described as bright, wide, round, high in silica, surprisingly acidic, and high in magnesium. Some of these descriptors made sense, and others, even after an explanation, seemed nonsensical. Still, I found myself reluctantly admitting that I could indeed feel the water leaving a clean finish on my tongue. I used the word “mouthfeel” several times, earnestly.

We finished with a grand finale: food pairings. First a nibble of dark, Mexican-style chocolate, then a sip of Vichy Catalan. The grainy chocolate blended with the earthy notes of the water to create a sharp, limestone-like flavor that, to my surprise, lightened the initial weighty kick of salt I remembered from earlier. Then we discussed the subtle differences in flavor the chocolate brought out of the other four waters. At times it felt like we were splitting hairs, but I was, after all, only pretending to be a water sommelier. Maybe my palate was simply too unsophisticated. 

As I took sip after sip, I couldn’t help but think about the journey this water had taken to arrive at my apartment. While I sat in front of my computer, sipping and sloshing, trying to determine which had more calcium. It had come out of a spring, been bottled, labeled, shipped to the US, processed, stored, and finally shipped once again to me.

The environmental impact of all of this was something I couldn’t ignore. As a resource, water is becoming more precious every year. In the face of global warming and rampant water inequity, it feels almost irresponsible to ship water across the world to taste its minerality. The aforementioned iceberg water shocked me most: a genre of bottled water sourced, yes, from icebergs. These $300 bottles are priced at a premium, and though they’re apparently sourced ethically (the company says it only takes small pieces of ice that have already broken off from icebergs, and that would otherwise melt into the sea), drinking incredibly pure iceberg water feels like a threshold of luxury that maybe we don’t need to cross. 

To Mascha, other, more pressing factors contribute to water scarcity around the globe. “This is much better addressed with you know agriculture, runoffs and and all those kinds of things,” he said. Bottled water, he said, is really a drop in the bucket. That’s a relative term, but while plastic water bottles have long been known as an environmental scourge, research shows that the glass bottles favored by most fine waters aren’t very eco-conscious either, though the water industry certainly pales in comparison to areas like mining and agriculture in terms of carbon emissions. Barrak-Barber had reservations about fine waters’ impact on the environment. “Environmentalism is something I struggle with as a water sommelier,” she said. She doesn’t drink out of single-use plastic water bottles, and she treats these waters as she would wine, only drinking them as a treat or on special occasions. On the other hand, she said, people import soda, kombucha, and wines from all over the world and no one bats an eye. Why should water get such scrutiny? 

Exploring the wide, weird, wet world of fine water was confusing, to say the least. I had been sure that all waters were created equal, but my original skepticism was dismissed after my first few sips of heavily salinated Vichy water; I have no doubt that mineral waters can have a distinct taste and texture. But the more I learned, the more I still found myself asking: Is water really worth all of this rigamarole?  

We’re determined to see water as unspecial, even if it's been carefully protected and sourced for generations the same way wine, caviar, or coffee is. The world of fine water is an interesting case study in the way that a food item gains value: so much of that value is based on presentation and narrative—fancy-looking bottles or an interesting story behind a label can drive up its price. And it holds an interesting tension: because it’s common, oftentimes cheap, and for the most part widely available, scrutinizing it as a luxury seems reserved for the ultra elite, or at least the fairly comfortable. You’ve got to have enough boxes in your life checked if you’re spending this much time thinking about your water. (When I emailed water sommeliers asking how much their income was, they didn’t give me exact figures, though Mascha said he was glad he “had some technology companies/equity in the ’90s” to support his work. Barrak-Barber told me she doesn’t know of any certified water sommeliers who make a full-time living from the practice.) 

“Are you having as much fun as I am?” Ungar asked me excitedly during my water tasting. “Ask me whatever you want,” Barrak-Barber gushed, mid-interview. “I’m just happy to have somebody that wants to listen!” I could feel myself getting sucked into their enthusiasm vortexes. Their excitement was infectious, and each interview left me knee-deep in new information.

Fine waters are made exceptional in the same way everything else is: a community of people find themselves captivated by it, and absolutely nerd out together. Just as a wine-obsessive will regale you with trivia about Rioja’s rainfall year by year, water enthusiasts will happily chat about the way magnesium sits on the tongue for hours. The three weeks I spent immersed in fine waters were a gentle reminder that everything deserves attention—everything deserves care. And care doesn’t have to mean buying an expensive, imported bottle of water. It means taking a sip of any water and bringing all of your focus into that moment, imbuing it with meaning that it doesn’t typically get. It means spending ten minutes discussing the miraculously refreshing power of tiny bubbles each time your boyfriend opens a new bottle of Gerolsteiner. It’s all ordinary. And it’s all special. Even, it seems, water.

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