In this interview, a drinking water engineer shares his experience tasting, and judging, some of the best-tasting water in the country.
Superior drinking water has benefits that extend beyond the glass. It can provide a point of pride in a community, even boost the economy, as it can serve as a magnet for economic development.
But what does truly superior drinking water taste like? How can other drinking water utilities improve their drinking water quality?
We asked Pat Planton, former SEH drinking water expert, who had the opportunity to serve as a taste tester and judge for the 11th Annual “Best of the Best” Drinking Water Taste Test Competition at the 2015 AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition (ACE15).
You’ve tasted the best water in the country. How did it taste?
[Pat Planton] Like absolutely nothing! [laughs] Great tasting water appears to have the right chemical makeup to impart no taste, odor or color to the water. Unlike other food or drink, great water is judged on its absence of taste, rather than a presence of taste.
Sounds like judging “no taste” would be difficult.
Yes, at this level, it’s difficult. All of the drinking water utilities present at ACE15 had already won their state or province competition and advanced from there. It was only the best of the best from around North America.
What was the taste testing process?
There were 30 different three-ounce samples, each in a small plastic cup. The water samples were required to be at room temperature, rather than chilled.
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Why serve at room temperature?
They do this because with water at room temperature, or at temperatures higher than chilled water, dissolved gases, odors and tastes are more discernable. That’s a takeaway to anyone reading this: cold water tastes better. There’s a scientific reason for it.
But, honestly, the process is not unlike if you’ve ever done a wine tasting, except there’s no spitting. Instead, water samples are ingested. After each tasting, saltine crackers were provided so we could “cleanse our palates” between each of the samples.
Finally, the competition was a blind test. No, we weren’t blindfolded, but we didn’t know where the samples came from, or if they were taken from surface or groundwater sources prior to judging.
We started with thirty samples, recording scores for each on a scale of one to ten, whittled them down to five finalists. Then selected the winner.
What were you judging, specifically?
Taste was the main criteria. Smell and mouthfeel were also considered. Water clarity, of course.
There’s a graphic that shows the full spectrum of water taste and smell [see below]. It gives a good picture of the kinds of things you are looking for when tasting water.
On that wheel you’ll find that there are proportionately more profiles for smell than taste. What’s interesting is that the majority of your sensory experience when eating or drinking comes from smell, rather than taste.
That said, just a few had discernable musty or chlorine odors. Subpar tasting water, compared to the superior tasting samples, did have either a weak musty/chorine odor, or an unwater-like taste or aftertaste. No differences in water clarity were observed — all the samples were very clear. You can’t say that about all drinking water in North America.
Were there major differences among any of the samples?
I was easily able to eliminate 20 of the 30 samples as rating inferior to the ten remaining samples. They had discernable taste or aftertaste. However, ranking the remaining ten water samples was extremely difficult for me and the other judges. Most of the samples we rated similarly, giving a score between eight or nine out of ten on the scoring sheet.
Who won? What utility had the best tasting water?
Of the top five, all tasted similar, with no easily discernable odor, taste or aftertaste. I judged two of them better than the other three, but it was a very close vote.
The Big Sky Water Utility of the AWWA-Montana Section was the ACE15 “Best of the Best” Taste Test Contest winner. A big congratulations to them. I scored two of the final five samples as my top choice — one of them was Big Sky Water, the 2015 Winner. So…congratulations to me! [laughs]
What is the winner doing to get such great tasting water?
Location can play a role. There are parts of the country that have an abundance of great tasting water — often times you find old breweries in these communities, and more currently you’ll find bottled water plants. These locations and utilities know that they have great water and aren’t afraid to compete for the title of Best Tasting Water in North America at AWWA’s ACE events.
Though the winner (Big Sky) is situated in an area that looks like it’d be on the label of a bottle of water — with picturesque mountains and pristine lakes — don’t think that the best water needs to come from places like these.
For example, the Village of Arcadia in Wisconsin has won the AWWA-Wisconsin Section’s Taste Test Contest many times — in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Arcadia should bottle their water — it’s that good; and even better at 48 degrees as it comes out of the ground, rather than room temperature.
Treated water should taste as good if not better than raw water — especially when tastes, odors and color are removed from the raw water. This is especially true with surface water supplies.
Aside from the pride, what kinds of benefits do communities with great tasting water see?
Everyone — residents, businesses, industries — loves great tasting water provided by their local water utility. Great tasting water, especially if it does not need much treatment to make it potable, generally results in lower rates for drinking water, as expensive treatment costs can be avoided.
Communities can also advertise and promote their drinking water. For example, Stevens Point, Wisconsin (where I lived for 26 years and designed many wells and treatment plants), won the 2010 AWWA ACE10 Best of the Best Taste Test Contest, beating out New York City’s water utility.
The City of Stevens Point has a tagline “City of Wonderful Water,” and the local Stevens Point Brewery also promotes that its water source is the great tasting water from the award-winning Stevens Point Water Utility.
What are some steps other cities or utilities can take to be more like the winner in Big Sky?
Public utilities could include even more water treatment polishing processes to continue to remove dissolved chemical components in the drinking water. In some cases, reverse osmosis treatment could be added that would, in effect, produce a de-ionized water, or distilled water — with no salts or other components other than H2O.
All water discharged from treatment plants should be disinfected, usually using chlorine. The identification of chlorine as a very efficient and cost-effective water disinfecting agent over 100 years ago was listed as one of the most important health advances of the twentieth century.
Anyway, in many small utilities sodium hypochlorite is used as the primary disinfectant of the water supply. In some cases, treated water can have a weak chlorine smell. Think swimming pools or Clorox bleach.
This weak chlorine smell often times means there is not enough chlorine being added to the water, which is counterintuitive to most water treatment operators. Their first reaction is to reduce the chlorine dosage to remove the chlorine odor, but the reverse is true but difficult to explain and has to do with breakpoint chlorination principles.
Any final words?
The large majority of the samples provided at the ACE15 Contest were as good if not better than most bottled water — plus with much more rigorous testing to ensure safety than bottled water. My final words? Your local water utility staff works hard to deliver water to your faucet every day. Drink tap!
Patrick Planton, PE, former SEH senior water project manager who led many award-winning water projects. Pat is passionate about solving the world’s drinking water challenges. Pat has worked on drinking water projects throughout North America over his career.