“I bet you are thinking I’m a little bit crazy,” says Martin Riese, as he cracks open a tall glass cylinder of crystal-clear water. A wide toothy smile breaks across the German’s face. “That’s totally normal.”
Riese is the water sommelier for the Patina Group in Los Angeles and has been certified as such by the German Water Trade Association since 2010. He and I are sitting in the sunny dining room of the Ray’s and Stark Bar, a restaurant tucked into the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The restaurant has a “water menu” of more than 40 pages and dozens of water choices, each detailing its mineral content, “taste,” and place of origin.
In front of us are five distinctly shaped bottles of water, which sell for between $US8 and $US20. It’s not quite the price of a quality vintage wine from Napa Valley, but, for a product which most people expect to be free, it can have some sticker shock.
“When people look through my water menu, their minds are blown,” Riese says. “They realise that water has value … Sometimes they see that I have a bottle for $US20 and they think I’m insane.”
Riese begins his water presentation by paying homage to the artistic scene in Los Angeles.
“I believe everyone on this planet has something to offer. Here, there are amazing painters and artists. Painting is their gift. I cannot paint at all. I have a special palette,” he says.
He is passionate about his subject and it shows. Riese has been tasting water since he was a 4-year-old boy in northern Germany. His parents, who worked in hospitality, often took him to vacation hot spots all across Europe. His first concern was always tasting the water from the tap.
“It was fascinating to me that everyone said it’s all tap water and none of it tasted the same to me. I couldn’t understand why everyone called it the same thing,” Riese says.
What he was tasting was the different total dissolved solids (TDS) level in each tap water. All waters have TDS levels ranging from the very low (between 10 and 40) to the very high (up to 7,000). Those with high TDS levels have a large amount of minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium in the water. It can have a huge effect on taste. Generally, waters with higher TDS levels are saltier, harsher, and “harder.”
Riese serves only spring and minerals waters that have been filtered by a natural aquifer, giving each water its own flavour, character, and mineral content, determined by geology, soil, and the climate of the place that it’s from.
Mass-produced waters like Dasani and Aquafina — which are not on the water menu — are purified waters, meaning they have been filtered to remove most impurities and minerals. While Riese admits they perfectly fine to drink, he thinks they all taste the same. He finds that boring.
“A good water should come from nature, not a factory,” Riese says.
The first water he opens is a familiar bottle — Voss. I’ve had Voss a few times, though I have to admit I am woefully under-informed on different water types. I had long assumed that Fiji and Voss were more expensive than Poland Spring simply because of their unique bottle shape.
The Voss bottle is cold but not too cold. According to Riese, it is at the perfect drinking temperature: 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Just cold enough to be refreshing but not so cold that it will give you a stomach ache.
Voss comes from Norway and is made from glacier water, which is very pure, Riese tells me.
My scepticism is running high, because, frankly, my first sip tastes like any other cold, refreshing water. Riese says there’s a reason for that. Glacier waters tend to have a very low TDS. Voss’s TDS is 40, about the same as most purified bottled waters. In addition, he says, it’s very hard to taste a difference until you have something to compare it to.
He brings a bottle of Iskilde close. It is smooth and oblong like a bottle one might find filled with a miniature ship. Iskilde water comes from an artesian spring in a conservation area in Denmark. The spring was discovered by a retired insurance broker and his wife, who had wanted to build a house on the property. Before approving the land for a well, the Danish government required the couple to have the water on the property tested by a lab. The water turned out to have oxygen that was more than 8,000 years old and a unique blend of minerals, having passed through 150 feet of alternating layers of quartz sand and clay.
As Riese pours the Iskilde into the glass, I notice that glass looks like it is filled with sparkling water. While it doesn’t look quite like seltzer, there are tons of bubbles. Riese fills me into why. Iskilde isn’t a carbonated water, but it does have an exceptionally high oxygen content because it passes through an air bubble in the ground on its way to the spring. When the water is poured out of the bottle, the oxygen dissipates as the pressure from the bottle goes away, leading to the bubbles.
“I’m not Jesus. I can’t turn water into wine. I’m more like David Copperfield. I can do magic with water,” Riese says with a laugh.
So what does 8,000-year-old Danish spring water taste like? Pretty good, it turns out. The taste is earthy when compared to Voss, which tastes acidic when I go back to drink it. The texture between the two is the most noticeable difference. If Voss could be likened to skim milk in texture, Iskilde is more like 2% milk.
The TDS level in Iskilde is 400, 10 times the mineral content of Voss.
I marvel at the two glasses, switching back and forth between the two to keep trying to taste the difference. Riese explains that most people don’t think about the taste of water because it requires so much effort.
“When we taste things, we actually rely on three senses: taste, sight, and smell. Water is tough because you can only rely on taste. It hopefully has no colour or odor,” Riese says.
I have to admit, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the difference between the two if I weren’t sitting there doing a “water tasting.” But when you focus on tasting the flavour, the difference in taste is undoubtedly there.
The next water bottle has an attractive angular shape and a label that looks trendy. It’s called Beverly Hills 9OH20 and, of course, it’s Riese’s personal brand. If this is where your BS-meter goes haywire, don’t worry. Mine did, as well. But considering the previous water revelation, I give him the benefit of the doubt.
9OH20 comes from a spring in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is then combined with a “special chemical formulation” of minerals “to craft the perfect pairing water.” The water’s special formulation — some combination of magnesium, silica, calcium, and potassium — is supposed to accentuate the taste of wines, spices, cheeses, and other foods.
“Water changes the taste of wine because you drink it right next to it,” Riese explains. “A water that is perfectly balanced can actually lower the tannins in the wine so that you will taste more fruit components. That was the concept behind 9OH20. I’ve crafted a water with the ability to lower acidity and spice levels.”
I’m not taking him at his word. I tell him to get some foods to try with the water. He has his waiter bring over fresh blue cheese and a red chilli paste. I try each and then chase it with a sip of the water. He tells me 9OH20 should make the taste “open up,” whatever that means. While I don’t notice anything different with the blue cheese, the chilli paste is noticeably more aromatic and not as painfully spicy after drinking the water. According to Riese, that’s because the water has silica, which helps the palette deal with the spice.
The next water is Vichy Catalan, the No. 1 consumed sparkling water in the country. It has a TDS level of more than 3,000.
According to Riese, Vichy Catalan is a popular water in Spain because of the country’s climate. People lose a lot of minerals when they are sweating, and Spaniards drink Vichy to replenish those minerals. In addition, Vichy’s high mineral levels give it a very salty taste, which pairs well with the rich and salty foods of Spain.
Indeed, when I try Vichy, I find that it has a very sharp, salty flavour, but whether the flavour is sharper than that of any other sparkling water like Pellegrino, I have no idea.
The last water is very special, Riese says. He only has 10 bottles of it, which he uses exclusively for tastings. The bottle is squat with a golden top and golden writing on the side — Roi. It comes from the Rogaška Spa and Health centre in Slovenia and has long been used as a medication water, renowned because it has the highest concentration of magnesium of any water in the world. The company behind ROI explicitly states on its website that its water is a health product and is not intended to “quench thirst.”
I soon find out why. Roi’s TDS is 7,400, which is “insane,” according to Riese. When I try it, I find it has a very strong bitter, metallic taste that I immediately associate with tonic water. While the taste is interesting, I doubt I would ever drink it for fun. I wouldn’t say the taste is exactly unpleasant, but it’s certainly off-putting.
Riese acknowledges this, saying he would never recommend it to be drunk with a meal. Instead, he says that Roi is best for two things — with your pre-dinner cocktail or after a night of drinking. It works pre-dinner because the high mineral content prepares your stomach for a meal and helps with digestion. It works after a night of drinking because the high mineral content replenishes the nutrients lost while drinking. The carbonation also settles upset stomachs. I would love to put it to the test, but unfortunately, Roi isn’t currently distributed in the US. The next time I’m in Slovenia I’ll have to give it a try.
Riese sits back satisfied. I taste each of the waters again to make sure I wasn’t going crazy. Each tastes distinct. He asks me which one I prefer. I point to the Iskilde without hesitation, surprising even myself. It had just the right balance of minerals. As if to emphasise his point, Riese points to different tables around the Ray’s and Stark Bar, each with a different brand of sparkling water.
“You were sceptical? That’s ok, I was sceptical too,” Riese says. “I was sceptical that [the water menu] would work, but I like variety. It looks to me like other people like variety too.”