The Ebb and Flow of the Fine Water Industry
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From “Still or sparkling?” to “Would you like to see the water menu?”; fine water is a breakout star on the culinary scene, with water sommeliers spearheading the movement.

By Anja Mutic

Our elixir of life is vital but we don’t just drink water out of necessity. From your morning mocha fix (a cup of coffee is 98% water) to your happy hour Moscow mule (vodka is 60% water), the basis of most day-to-day refreshments is – water. It can truly make or break a beverage. Prominent water sommelier Martin Riese notes that “when you ask a beer brewer in Germany why their beer is so special, they’ll tell you the water they use has a huge impact.” But water’s transformative power isn’t limited to liquids. “When you go to Italy and ask why the pasta is so great, they’ll tell you it depends on the water,” Riese explains.

It’s no surprise then that people want more from their water. When it comes to something so critical, consumers, top chefs and sommeliers have decided to stop settling for sub-par – aka, for purified tap water sold in overpriced plastic bottles. The supreme substitute to meet these new demands? Fine water.

Michael Mascha, founder of FineWaters, holds that “fine water is not just water; it is intrinsically connected to the source, not only the natural environment but also the social and cultural environment around the source.” Have you ever gone to a new city and found yourself surprised by the local water tasting different than back at home? Water has a distinct flavor from city to city because of different water sources, pipes and chlorine levels. “Water is not a commodity with uniform characteristics,” adds Mascha. “Each has a terroir reflecting the geology of and circumstances of its origins.”

Ganesh Iyer, India’s first certified water sommelier and director of operations for India at VEEN Waters, explains that “the elementary source for any water still remains rain water.” There is a difference though between artisanal water, well water, spring water or even iceberg water, mostly related to the terroir, the level of TDS (total dissolved solids), the pH level and the virginity of the water. “Solids” refers to minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium – which give water its flavor.

At the crown of the fine water industry is spring water. Through gentle bottling directly at the chosen spring, Riese believes “the experience of drinking bottled fine water should be as close as possible to the experience of drinking at the source.” Natural iceberg water has its share in the fine water industry too, but well water as well as tap water – including its purified version – are off the table. “Purified water comes from a municipal source, so it’s just highly processed tap water,” explains Riese. “I would never buy it because I want to taste and discover nature and terroir in my water glass, not a highly processed beverage.”

Mascha noticed fine water’s large flavor spectrum after he began to dabble in taste testing. “Suddenly terms like ‘focused and short,’ ‘broad and lingering,’ ‘substantial’ or ‘light’ seemed appropriate,” he reflects.

Always on the lookout for superior dining experiences, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the nuances of fine water. To cater to this piqued interest, fine water establishments have been popping up worldwide, from Water Bar in Washington, DC to a 3-Michelin-star restaurant in Rome.

Among the biggest believers in the importance of better and tastier H20 are water sommeliers. In order to become one, experience is only the second step. “First things first,” notes Iyer. “You’ve got to be passionately invested in water as a serious beverage.” If the passion is there, the experience will follow; there are now several options for establishing yourself as a certified water sommelier.

The original go-to if you wanted to enroll in a water sommelier course was the prestigious DOEMENS Academy in Munich, Germany. Dr. Peter Schropp, founder of the renowned Doemens Water Sommelier course, highlights the ever-increasing number of professionals wishing to become part of the fine water world. “I wanted to share my knowledge with other people and launched the first Water Sommelier Course in 2010. This project developed greatly, so nowadays we offer these courses in German and English, and together with our partners, in Mandarin as well.”

Today, there is also Riese and Mascha’s Fine Water Academy, the world’s only fully online water sommelier certification. Mascha explains how sommeliers’ passion for water meets the growing needs of both dining establishments as well as diners: “We see the adoption of the concept of water menus in restaurants providing the customers real choices beyond still and sparkling,” adding that the Fine Water Academy was founded “in order to train water sommeliers who can match the water.”

As the experts say, “there’s no best water,” and pairings vary from food to food. Diners are ready to enhance their cuisine, so the industry’s pioneering sommeliers have shared their insider tips for using water to make the most out of your meal.

For seafood lovers, Iyer recommends “a seafood salad paired with a sparkling water that has a low level of carbonation.” This is echoed by Mascha, who praises an effervescent or lightly carbonated water with sushi. To modify the old proverb: Fish, to taste good, must swim three times: in water, in butter, and in wine water again. For those with a sweet tooth, Mascha recommends they pair their dessert with a softer water that has higher silica levels.
For heavier meals, Mascha’s go-to for crispy food is a carbonated water or acidic water for fatty food. Riese agrees, explaining that carbonation “will cut through the richness of meat and the salty notes of the water will pair perfectly with the umami aromas of sausages and burgers.” He adds that “a water with an intense carbonation and a distinct mineralization can easily cut through fatty and creamy sauces.”
Don’t be afraid to mix and match; water pairs with both wine and whiskey. Iyer recommends a low-TDS water to complement heavy, peaty single malts. With wine white, Mascha advises to “choose water with a low mineral content and a neutral pH; red wine demands water with a medium to high mineral content and a neutral pH.”
You might be tempted to call the fine water industry a “craft” industry. It’s unique, focuses on high quality and spends time and care on production. But sommeliers stick to the term “fine water.” “A fine water has to be a water from a natural source,” explains Dr. Schropp. “Artisanal or craft water would mean a special type of water created by people.”

The fine water industry hasn’t created a new craft product. It has simply met an already existing demand for high-quality water and delectable dining experiences, carefully sourcing and elegantly packaging the naturally occurring aqua-ambrosia. As Dr. Schropp so aptly elucidates, water sommeliers don’t deal with craft water, but rather fine water “crafted by nature.”

The fine water industry has taken the emergent demand arising from top-rate restaurants and spirited sommeliers to everyday end-users, delivering a quality product. As a result, natural virgin fine water is making waves across the world’s culinary scene.