The Taste of Water

We all form subconscious conclusions when we taste water. At a blind water tasting held by The San Francisco Chronicle in 1980, samples of municipal waters from around the San Francisco Bay area were collected and rated by a panel of food and wine experts. Hidden among the tap waters to be tasted was a highly mineralized, non-carbonated French bottled water. All of the judges found it's taste unpleasant and gave it poor marks -- all except Francoise Labet, a French wine maker. He rated the bottled water as the best tasting, with comments like, "This water reminds me of home." Unknown to him, the water which he rated so highly actually was what he drank at home. He demonstrated that our taste buds and brain have strong recall, even with the subtle taste of water.

In another tasting conducted for The American Institute of Wine and Food in September of 1990, California municipal tap waters were judged by a panel of eight food and wine experts. Each judge collected their own local tap water and brought it to the tasting. There was a general consensus that the best water in California came from the North and that probably San Francisco or Santa Cruz would win. Much to the surprise of the judges and audience, the winning water came from Huntington Beach, a coastal town South of Los Angeles. It was discovered that Huntington Beach's own wells have lower concentrations of minerals than the Northern California sources -- and tasters prefer their tap water with lower minerals.

At another tap water tasting in Atlanta, organized by Southpoint Magazine, ten Southern municipal waters were rated on a scale from zero (sludge), to 13 (nirvana). Memphis won with comments like "...On the nose, at first it was cottony ... a refreshing texture." Judges rated New Orleans, "...for its neutrality, this is Swiss of the waters." Dallas was said to be, "...crude, with an edge." Houston , "... bring on the chlorine, "...It was like a chemistry lab, " and for one of the judges "...that brought back unpleasant memories." Atlanta water wasn't so peachy. The judges said, "... It was like having a gulp of a swimming pool," Charlotte was described as tasting "like when you have a Band-Aid on your finger and you get in the shower and you get out and suck the water out of the Band-Aid ...It's like a wet Band Aid." And of Orlando's water they said "...It's the reason most people don't drink water."

A more scientific approach to the taste of water was explored by Professor William Bruvold of the University of California at Berkeley. He conducted and published findings about the taste of minerals in water. His study showed that certain combinations and concentrations of minerals in water were more acceptable to tasters than others.

We have approximately 100,000 taste buds and each one is connected to the brain by a nerve. Each taste bud senses four basic stimulations from various parts of the tongue. Saltiness and sweetness are experienced from taste buds on the tip of the tongue. The sensation of sourness is perceived on the outer edge of the tongue and bitterness is perceived on the rear surface of the tongue. Aiding the total tasting experience are two nerves in the upper passage of the nose. The aromatics of a substance pass through the nose region when we exhale. Pinch your nose and see how much less you really taste without your nose. When evaluating water its important to draw the water into the mouth and cover all your taste-sensitive areas.

Tap water taste varies depending on where you live and how your municipal water supply treats or processes the water. Chlorine is one of the most commonly perceived tastes associated with municipal water and the chemical imparts a slightly acidic taste.

Water impurities can affect the taste of many foods and beverages. Julia Child said that her Santa Barbara tap water turns her "Chinese tea into mud." Certainly, tea and coffee's natural aromatic constituents will diminish with poor tasting tap water. Chlorine and other chemicals can effect the taste of beverages, ice cubes, soups and even vegetables.

Carl Rosenberg, the former chief baker at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, was asked to duplicate the famous dinner rolls at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle. Rosenberg went to Seattle, and on returning to Los Angeles tried out the recipe. The rolls' distinctive flavor and texture were both missing. He rechecked the ingredients and all were correct and of the highest quality. "Could it be the water?" he wondered. After ordering several gallons of Seattle tap water he tried the recipe again. This time it worked. Since it was not practical to ship Seattle water each time he baked the rolls, he used distilled water which produced better dough fermentation. And although distilled water may be better to cook with, it does not score well in water tastings.

At The American Institute of Wine and Food's "Homage to H20," ten non-carbonated bottled waters were judged in a blind tasting. The water scoring the lowest points was a distilled bottled water. The judges used words like "dull" and "flat" to describe the taste. People tend to prefer drinking spring waters and using distilled waters for their car batteries or irons.

Natural springs are as unique as a fingerprint. No two are identical. They occur randomly, and each one has its own personality. Some are gushers while others gurgle. Some are still while others are carbonated. Some are boiling hot while others are near freezing. But one thing all springs have in common is that each one has its own unique water analysis.

The taste of spring water reflects different geologic strata where water absorbs minerals and trace elements; some over a year or two and others over centuries. These minerals are described in the water's mineral analysis and are perceived in its taste. Highly mineralized water can sometimes taste metallic, and high bicarbonates can taste salty. Water with hydrogen sulfide tastes like rotten eggs, and high iron in water can taste like a rusty nail. Lower grade plastic bottles can cause a plastic taste in the water. And, if those bottles are stored in sunlight, the plastic taste can become even stronger. People tend to prefer their non-carbonated water in the range of 30 - 100 patrs per million of total dissolved solids -- that being the measure of these minerals and trace elements. For carbonated waters, higher levels of minerals are more acceptable.

The taste of carbonated water is dominated by the level of carbonation. The more carbon dioxide gas present, the more acidic the taste. This sensation, sometimes described by tasters as "bracing," "sharp" and "spritzy," can be positive or negative, depending upon which minerals are in the water. Certain minerals bind the carbonation into the water. Seltzers tend to loose their carbonation quickly because of the lack of minerals. In bottled water tastings, the more highly mineralized carbonated waters have scored best.

As the bottled water boom continues and new brands search for shelf space, the question of taste may become the battle ground of the 1990s. The consumer has been given the message from the industry that bottled water tastes better than tap water. But which bottled water tastes best? Try your own water tasting with the guidelines set herewith and perhaps the answer may spring forth!