Fine Water

Posted on April 5, 2011 by

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I had a bad beer today. A bad beer that should have been a good beer. A six-pack of Fuller’s London Pride bought from the top shelf at the local beer and wine store. I should have known – it was imported, low-alcohol, and had probably been on that shelf for months and months. Lo and behold, I brought it home and opened one up… and it was spoiled. This was extra-disappointing because A) I didn’t have other beer to drink instead and B) Fuller’s London Pride is an extra-awesome beer.

Disheartened, I poured myself a large glass of water from the tap instead. As I sat drinking it, I wondered “are there people who geek out about water like I geek out about beer???”

Silly me. The answer, of course, is yes.

Finding them wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I was looking for people who drank water as a drinking experience, and not for people concerned about the safety of drinking water, drinking water for health reasons, or environmental concerns about bottled water.

Once I did find them, I was a little disappointed that my glass of tapwater wasn’t considered a cool thing to drink: “There is nothing wrong with good tap water,” said water expert Michael Mascha, “and New York and San Francisco are very fortunate in this regard and I enjoy both from properly maintained pipes. Tap water is for hydration. In an epicurean context, the issue with tap water is that it limits your choices to one.” I understand Mascha’s point, but when I was first imagining being a water enthusiast, I imagined someone visiting places all over their region/the world drinking different tap waters, well waters, and local mineral waters. Or someone with more specific uses for tap-water-drinking, as in Jean Giradoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Unfortunately, the fine water community is not large and not vibrant. Most of its internet presence is made up of people in the industry – no fan blogs about bottled rainwater out there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: most industries start off by having the majority of adherents actively participate. It looks a lot like how the craft beer world probably looked in the 1980s, but water has even greater hurdles to clear than beer. It’s not a product people are used to paying for. It has significant opposition from environmental groups. Unlike beer in the 1980s, there’s not much of a history of the product and no international markets that it can draw from. But most importantly, unlike beer’s reputation as an everyman’s drink, quality bottled waters have the reputation of being for elites only.

Certainly there is a large part of the psyche and the reality of fine water that is geared to the ultra-luxury consumer, that is all about making a pedestrian product extravagant and charging a fortune. Certainly it is easy to sound like an asshole while talking about water from a virginal spring in the Peruvian Andes, and many of the enthusiasts seem to be straight out of the above video clip from The Madwoman of Chaillot. But many are not, and the idea of people taking interest in the water they drink appeals to me at a time when getting clean water to people around the world is a great world challenge (by the way, Starbucks’ Ethos water, which contributes to providing clean water to people around the world, is widely held to be terrible among water enthusiasts). But it seems that a vibrant water community, if it were to exist, could do much to raise awareness of water supply problems.

Alas, fine water has many challenges in front of it before it can claim anything close to a dedicated community of connoisseurs. Similar to the way wine enthusiasts and Miller Lite drinkers alike wrote many extremely patronizing articles about the growing sophistication in the beer community in the 1990s and early 2000s (and still do, from time to time), everyone seems to, at least initially, regard water drinking as a bit of a joke. The Water Conoisseur looks a lot like a blog of water tasting notes, until you start reading it and find that the author, “an Oxford graduate with a double concentration in hydrology and fluid dynamics,” is the biggest pretentious douchebag to ever walk the earth. The site is a clever parody by New York comedian Boris Khaykin.

TIME magazine reporter Matthew Mahon wrote a patronizing but ultimately favorable account of a water dinner he had with Michael Mascha, who seems to be one of the few strong voices in the world of water drinking (writing in English on the internet, at least). His company’s website has some good information about water, but is woefully incomplete, and his blog entries end in 2009. This may not be the specific reason for the stop of work on Mascha’s blog, but it seems that the bad economy has been bad on water drinkers.  In 2007 Mascha told the SFist that “Water is the next wine.” With the bad economy, searching out rare, imported, premium water seems laughably excessive and positively pompous, whether or not that’s actually the case. It’s not surprising that water drinking has not, in fact, become the next wine.

As for me? I’m not about to plunk down $323 for 12 750-ml bottles of Tasmanian rainwater. But next time I’m at my grocery store, I will take a look at their bottled water aisle, and chuckle a little bit, and maybe even buy a single bottle of a moderately priced something, if it looks good, to take on a picnic sometime.

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Posted in: Food & Beverage