Pity the organizers of the annual International Water Tasting Competition in Berkeley Springs. This is not the year I'd want to be behind an event in West Virginia that's based on water purity.
Last month's calamity on the Elk River points out what we already know: we can't get along without clean water, and we expect our municipalities to protect our water sources and prepare our tap water for safe consumption. Bottled water may be delicious, and the drink of choice among many, but it's essential that a Dixie cup under the tap delivers what you need when you're thirsty.
Both municipal and bottled waters are evaluated at the event in Berkeley Springs, which is the largest water tasting competition in the world. This year's competition -- the 24th annual -- runs Feb. 20 to 23, with the main event on Saturday, Feb. 22. That's when judges -- including yours truly -- will taste some of the 125 entrants that are vying to be named best, an honor that carries more than bragging rights. There is the handcrafted, fused glass bowl made at Amingo Glass in Hedgesville, that winners receive. Additionally the image of a gold medal may be included on packaging for bottled water that wins.
And packaging counts. Attendees at the event may take part in a People's Choice award that rewards innovative, attractive packaging for the more than 600 brands of bottled water that may compete. Water arrives in bottles tinted blue or green, in shapes rounded or angular. There are long-necked, tall bottles and tiny pony bottles. There are bottles from all over the world. At the end of the competition, an event called the Water Rush involves allowing the audience to swarm the hundreds of bottles that have been artfully arranged, and take away what they can carry.
It's a funky and fun event, and it makes sense to have it in Berkeley Springs, a town originally known as Bath. Named for its fine water, the town was a refuge for a young George Washington, whose bathtub remains carved into stone at the rear of Berkeley Springs State Park. Of course, the Native Americans far preceded young George in appreciation of the waters in this place. Many believe them to be curative, whether through bathing or drinking. The water, flowing through natural mineral springs and filtered through sandstone, emerges at a constant 74 degrees, at about 2,000 gallons a minute.
Folks bring their own jugs and line up at a spigot near Washington's bathtub, to decant that good water for themselves. Full of dissolved minerals, it's naturally delicious. It is also the reason that Berkeley Springs State Park houses only state-run spa in the United States.
This will not be my first time as a water judge. I am familiar with the process of eyeing, smelling, swirling and fully tasting glass after glass of water, to check for impurities or detect notes of chlorination. It takes hours to go through all of the flights of tastings. Believe it or not, it's a little bit grueling. Judges are allowed plain crackers between tastes to promote salivation, because the ironic truth is that nothing dries out your mouth more than swallowing sip after sip of plain water.