Friday, March 29, 2024

The Olympics of Water Tasting in Berkeley Springs West Virginia

About four years ago I wrote about my experience with water tasting for this site. Because so much time has passed since then, I decide to revisit the subject since I returned to Berkeley Springs this February to participate in the event for a third time.

For those who missed my first water-judging post, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia has been the site of the International Water Tasting event for 34 years now and is referred to as the "Olympics of Water Tasting." 

This might sound ridiculous, but for those in the industry it's an important event, especially when it comes to the commercial viability of some brands, which use it as a calling card with distributors. It's also an educational tool, with live-streamed seminars broadcast throughout the day on Facebook, where experts lecture on the importance of water for human health and the health of the planet.

This year, approximately 100 waters from as far away as Japan were sent to the water tasting headquarters at the Country Inn to be rated by 11 media judges that included representatives from West Virginia Public Broadcasting and various regional and national media, including newspapers, websites, blogs and online and print magazines.

Judge School

Prior to the tasting, water judges convene at the Country Inn to learn the specifics of the job is and how to do it. The educational session is always conducted by Arthur von Wiesenberger, who's written several books on the subject, including H2O: The Guide to Quality Bottled Water. Von Wiesenberger's knowledge about water has continued to grow over the years inspired by the work he's done scouting out good water for Anheuser Busch and NASA. "They wanted water that wouldn't wreck their systems," said von Wiesenberger, who always manages to make the topic of water interesting and peppers his talks with anecdotes that always seem to elicit a laugh. 

Von Wiesenberger explains that the most common tastes customers experience in tap water come from a variety of sources: chlorine, chemicals used in water treatment, iron from pipes and storage tanks and sulfur, which usually comes from warm springs. In his other book, The Taste of Water, which judges usually receive at the event, a glossary lists sometimes humorous tasting notes, like wet band-aid, wet dog, flabby and flinty. He explains how water, when left standing, can become stale. "It's vapid, lacking freshness and sometimes tastes like old bread," he said.

A Trade Show

Prior to judging, guests from around the area are invited to vote on their favorite packaging in a trade show atmosphere as water vendors display their wares.

Wilderness Mountain Water Company from Bland, Virginia is anything but bland.
They won best packaging.

One year a distributor from Norway brought a water culled from a "virgin iceberg," with a price tag that raised eyebrows. I believe it was $80 a bottle, or some such ridiculous figure. I guess it would be a good gift for the person who has everything. There's a joke here about what you're doing with your money, but I'll refrain.

More packaging entries.
The Tasting
That's me on the far left sitting next to a morning show radio host who was a lot of fun.

I'm always amazed at the crowd the event attracts. Everyone from curious locals to water-industry professionals and Berkeley Springs tourism boosters attend.

Below you'll see Jill Klein Rone and von Wiesenberger addressing the audience. Rone has been with the event since its inception, taking on various roles, including publicity director, selection of judges, director, producer and emcee.

Jill Klein Rone and Arthur von Wiesenberger address the crowd.

After the glasses are all lined up in front of the judges, Rone and Wiesenberger kick off the event with a dramatic sweep of the hand as they declare, "Let the Waters Flow."

One by one, eleven media members worked our way through about 100 waters, representing five continents. That included humble municipal waters, along with sparkling and distilled waters. Each was rated for odor, flavor, mouth feel and aftertaste as we allotted points on an I-pad and a backup slip of paper.

At the end of the tasting, the winners were announced, and guests were permitted to approach the stage for the "water rush." This curious event enables whoever desires to rush the stage and gather up as much water as they want. (I was surprised to hear later that some even brought along coolers.)


Winning their first gold this year in the Bottled Non-Carbonated Water Category was three-time Silver Medal winner Eldorado Natural Spring Water, Eldorado Springs, CO. First time entry Piney Plains Natural Spring Water, Little Orleans, Md took Silver and Peninsula Springs Spring Water, Doveton, Victoria, Australia won Bronze. Rounding out the category was last year's Bronze Medal winner, Jano, Village-Blanchard, NB, Canada in fourth and former Gold Medal winner Theoni Natural Mineral Water, Karditsa, Greece in fifth.

"The consistency in winners from year to year with different panels of judges validates the choices," said von Wiesenberger of the blind competition. "It also speaks to the impressively high caliber of the waters entered," he adds.

Poking around Berkeley Springs

The judges usually take advantage of the time allotted the day before the event to poke around the cute, quaint, walkable town, which is known for its waters.

Berkeley Springs was once home to native Americans who used the mineral springs for healing purposes before settlers arrived. George Washington was even known to have frequented the area, forming the town of "Bath," which was the original name.

This is located at Berkely Springs Park, just a few steps away from the Country Inn.

Guests also visit the park to take advantage of the free water available there, which was a stipulation that was placed in the town's charter in 1776. To this day, people bring jugs to fill. I once ran into a couple who brought dozens of empty containers from the D.C. area.

Visitors will also find plenty of boutique shopping in the area. The Berkeley Springs Antique Mall on Fairfax Street features a large variety of items sold by dozens of dealers, from ephemera, to glassware, estate jewelry, furniture and more.

We also enjoyed browsing a candy shop called "Sweets & Shenanigans," which featured not only sweet treats, but gifts as well.
Spotted at Sweets & Shenanigans

Sodas, sweets and more at Sweets & Shenanigans

Guests can also poke around in the cute little library located downtown or take in a show at the historic Star Theater which aired its first movie way back in 1928.

The marquee at the Star Theater, which dates back to 1928.

A shop that we usually visit on our various excursions to the area is Rocks and Glass. The kindly gentleman there may even read your palm. This time he invited me back to his workshop to see some of his unfinished art.
The unfinished art.

The finished product.

We also browsed the art at the Ice House, run by the Morgan Arts Council. Located at the corner of Independence and Mercer Streets, the Ice House is a gallery showcasing the work of about 30 regional artists. We saw some very cool pieces there, including the beautiful wood objects seen below.

Good Eats

I can recommend the Naked Olive Lounge, located in downtown Berkeley Springs, for reasonably priced food. I especially enjoyed their pizza.

We've also had good food at the Country Inn where the tasting is held. Their New Year's Eve party buffet is dynamite, with great prime rib, oversized shrimp and delicious drinks.

One final place I'll recommend is Charlotte's Cafe. I purchased honey and brownies on the way out and then returned on the way back home for more brownies. It makes sense I suppose, since a pastry chef is in the kitchen.


In the past we've stayed at the cozy Country Inn and enjoyed it quite a bit. If you go during the winter, it's beautifully decorated for the holidays and guests can plop down into a comfortable couch to be warmed by the fire.

This time we stayed at Coolfont, which is probably beautiful in the summertime since it's located amidst a copse of trees. We had plenty of room to stretch out as you can see in the pictures.

Coolfont exterior.

The great room at Coolfont.

The bedroom at Coolfont.

The sitting room in our suite at Coolfont.

That's about it for today--hopefully this piques your interest if not about water, then about the Berkeley Springs area, which my husband and I have visited about half-a-dozen times. We're fortunate in that it's only about an hour-and-a-half away from our Central Pennsylvania home, so it's definitely worth the drive.