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H2Ohhhh . . .
At West Virginia's Coolfont Resort, Tasting the World's Best Waters

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

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W. Va.

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."

All water isn't the same. To hear von Wiesenberger tell it, some waters are as different from one another as Marilyn Manson is from Charles Osgood. Water contains dissolved solids, all kinds of minerals. There might be calcium, magnesium, sodium. There might be potassium, which gives it a sweet taste. Municipal water has chlorine, an acid. In a pamphlet, "The Taste of Water," von Wiesenberger has written, "The taste of spring water reflects the geologic strata below the spring where the water has absorbed minerals and trace elements -- some over a year or two, others over centuries." In other words, you can taste the rocks. Water with lots of minerals in it usually tastes better if it's carbonated -- and the ideal level of carbonation is just another factor that a serious water taster has to consider.

Ready to adjudicate, we took up positions on the stage at Coolfont. Several dozen audience members sat in folding chairs, perfectly willing to watch other people drink water. The emcee, J.W. Rone, an event organizer, welcomed everyone and gave a preliminary explanation of the gravity of the event.

"Let the pouring begin!" he said.

In the first round we tasted 20 municipal drinking waters. Most were quite good, because the real stinkers, the pool waters, the roadkill waters, the polecat waters, had been knocked out in a preliminary round. We rated waters in six categories: clarity, odor, taste, mouth-feel, aftertaste and overall impression. To my palate, most tasted . . . fine. A few had obvious chemical flavors, or seemed musty, stale, flat, old, tired. "Tired water" was a phrase the water master had given us.

Speaking of tired, we were told to fight "palate fatigue" by munching on crackers -- "table water" crackers, wouldn't you know. The winner: Amos, Canada. No idea where that is, but the water's divine.

Then came 10 purified drinking waters. These had all the minerals -- all the excitement, flamboyance, effervescence and devil-may-care attitude you find in water -- removed. By some miracle the judges were able to determine that the best was "Claire Baie," from Oak Creek, Wis.

The judges had to change clothes into more formal attire for the evening session -- you know how fashion-forward these dang West Virginia shindigs can be. The dress code was "black tie or bib overalls optional," hinting at the festival's international/local duality. The judges were treated to dinner, which I strongly suspected was a form of captivity. The organizers feared that, left alone, we'd corrupt our palates. The only beverage served: Water! Coffee was explicitly prohibited. (The judge from California, a wine consultant, was looking rather desperate. We sneaked away to the bar and had a furtive, irresponsible gulp of wine, which, after all the water, seemed as thick as tree sap.)

Then came two more hours of water drinking.

It's conceivable that, under the pressure of the moment, I tasted things that were purely imaginary. It was probably unfair for me to declare that one of the waters was "dry."

"Gritty," I wrote about one.

"Beany," I said of another.

Is it possible that too much water has a neurological effect? Can you get drunk on it? Lurching around the room later, I insisted to an organizer that one water was as fiery as Mexican food.

They say that people are 70 percent water, but by the end of the night I was up to about 90 percent. I didn't walk, I flowed.

Simply Natural Canadian Spring Water, from Dorion, Ontario, won the Non-Carbonated Bottled Water competition, for those of you keeping score. In the final round, the sparkling waters, the judges were rooting for the Tajiks, because they'd come so far. But flashy, famous Perrier won the round. Maybe the judges, bored by flat waters, liked Perrier's unusually intense carbonation (registering around "4.5 atmospheres," according to the water master).

The last of the nine sparkling waters was the most unusual. Its carbonation didn't erupt and quickly fizzle, but stayed balanced. It had an intriguing assortment of mineral flavors. I gave it top scores, as did the professional wine consultant. It turned out to be the water from Bosnia. They might not have the most serene society, but they have interesting water, and they got the bronze medal.

As peculiar as the event was, it drove home an interesting point: Good drinking water is precious. Don't take it for granted! Rone, the emcee, reminded the audience that countless people on the planet lack safe drinking water. Their water doesn't taste "chemical" because it's completely untreated and, in some cases, lethal. "Every 11 seconds, someone dies because of lack of access to clean water," he said.

Here, we take this life-giving substance and package it as a delightful beverage option. Soon we will figure out a way to bottle air itself. There will be mountain airs and forest airs and oceanside airs. There will be sparkling airs and calm airs. There will be small resort towns (Coolvent?) that sponsor air-breathing contests, with judges trained by an air master. I think I'll just watch.

GETTING THERE: You could start paddling up the Potomac, but driving is easier and takes just two hours. Take I-270 to I-70 west past Hagerstown, Md., to Hancock. Get off on Route 522 South. Six miles down the road you'll be in Berkeley Springs -- don't blink or you'll miss the state park. Coolfont is out Route 9, on Cold Run Valley Road.

SPAS: There are four full-service private spas, in addition to the Roman baths and other facilities at the state park. A mud bath at Atasia (877-258-7888) costs $60. Coolfont (800-888-8768) has a spa and wellness center and, for $75, will cover your face with seaweed.

SHELTER: Coolfont covers 1,300 acres and has multiple options, from cabins to chalets to campsites. Rooms at the Woodland House Lodge start at $69 a night. The best chalets go for upward of $350 a night. The Country Inn (800-822-6630), right downtown next to the state park, has rooms for under $100, as well as a spa and a restaurant.

DINING: Tari's Premier Cafe (123 N. Washington St.) is first-rate, as is Lot 12 Public House (302 Warren St.). Less expensive fare is available along Route 122, heading south.

WHAT ELSE TO DO: The Star Theatre (Congress and North Washington streets, 304-258-1404), a downtown movie house, charges $3 for adults and $2.50 for kids. The New World Theater Company (304-258-3302, www.newworldtheater.com) performs a show about water, "The Ripple Effect." The Berkeley Springs Antique Mall (100 Fairfax St.) has 30 dealers.

VIEW: The Panorama Overlook, on Route 9, takes in a gorgeous swath of West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

INFO: Travel Berkeley Springs, 800-447-8797, www.berkeleysprings.com

© 2001 The Washington Post Company