H2Ohhhh . . .

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2001


One problem with being a water taster in a water-tasting contest is that water does not have a whole lot of taste. Water is kind of . . . bland. It's really, really watery. One of the first adjectives that comes to mind, whenever I taste water, is "wet."

That, of course, is not sufficient if you are working as a water taster, judging the relative merits of many waters. You have to say something more meaningful, like, "This water was lubricious, massively structured and nearly muscle-bound." Or maybe, "I loved the way the hydrogen and oxygen atoms played off one another."

Imagine my stress. I spent an entire afternoon and much of an evening trying to taste the tasteless. It was slightly reminiscent of an anxiety dream.

You're on a stage. Strange people are looking at you. You are facing dozens of identical, unlabeled glasses of a clear, odorless, flavorless liquid. You must judge their quality. You forgot to wear pants.

This was the 11th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, part of the three-month "Winter Festival of the Waters," which began in January. Water is not an incidental element here; it's the thematic core, the backbone of its economy. Since George Washington plunked himself in a stone bathtub at the spring in the center of town, people have clambered to this nook of the West Virginia panhandle to partake of the healing waters.

A state park, not much bigger than a playground, surrounds the springs. You can take a Roman bath and get a massage, or check out the local private spas. Knock on almost any door downtown and you'll find a place to get rubbed, scrubbed, soaked, loofahed, mud-packed and fully hydrogenated. (My wife had a mud bath in mud imported from the Dead Sea. Now this was some fabulous mud!)

A few miles from town, nestled in a valley still covered with snow when we visited, is the Coolfont resort. We rented a chalet; I could walk out the door and straight up the mountain, and did just that. The kids discovered that the place has snow tubing, an indoor pool, a hot tub and a sauna -- four distinct exploitations of water in its solid, liquid and gaseous states.

It would have been an entirely relaxing weekend were it not for the heavy lifting of the water contest. This thing had global resonance. There were entries from Syria, Sweden, Scotland, France, Italy, Canada, Tajikistan and Bosnia. Two years ago the Bosnians entered for the first time and won the gold medal, a psychic boost for a nation notorious for strife, death, blood. This time the Tajiks were the newcomers; they had flown from central Asia with their water as carry-on baggage.

"This is really the Academy Awards of water," said Arthur von Wiesenberger, a dapper Californian who served as the water master.

A water master is someone whose relationship with water is masterful. At first, I must say, I wondered if von Wiesenberger was a semifictional character -- was that even his real name? -- but he filled in some biographical details. Years ago he was in the beer business, trying to help Anheuser-Busch find water worth bottling. He traveled the land, sampled local waters and became such an expert that he wrote three books on the topic. Yes, he's the guy who wrote the book "H2O."

He trained the judges. He taught us to search for impurities, "off-flavors" and odors of any kind. Water should not reek of chlorine or plastic or chemicals. It shouldn't be salty, septic or soapy. It shouldn't earn the terrible adjectives of "lake" or "skunk." It shouldn't be sulfurous or ferruginous. It should not be guppy water. Its effect should not be "purgative."

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