Gourmet Water – It's The New Wine

Some call it the new oil. Others say it is so pure that it must never have a price tag. Pure water is the planet's most elemental liquid and so scarce it is becoming a gourmet treat. Jonathan Franklin investigates the world’s latest chic drink – Patagonia glacial water.
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“I am not suggesting you swim in it or bathe in it, but bottling water in Patagonia for a nice meal is like drinking wine from Chile or from France,” says Michael Mascha, a retired Austrian anthropologist now one of the world’s most famous water connoisseurs. “It is all about enjoying food and caring about where it is coming from, water needs to be included in this.”

Like beer aficionados who abhor tasteless Budweiser, water connoisseurs are now setting the standards and rankings for an entire new taste experience – pure water.

A lifelong wine lover, Mascha developed an allergy that forced him to quit wine. For Mascha, who made his fortune in early internet development, the wine prohibition was painful. Following his doctor’s orders, Mascha stopped sipping wine and carefully designed a storage system for his 500+ bottled wine collection (“In case I am diagnosed with a fatal disease, then I can go back to wine,” said Mascha.) Like a cigarette addict unsure of what to place between his fingers, Mascha searched for an outlet for his love of tasting, appreciating and categorizing wines. He found water.

In 2003, Mascha founded www.finewaters.com, a pioneering and even anthropological analysis of the world’s pure and distinct waters. His website hit a vein of consumer interest and today Mascha travels the world dispensing quotable facts about the history of water (“Classic Rome had 11 aqueducts and had lists of the waters they thought were best. They ranked their water sources. The bottle might be new but transporting water is ancient.”)

About the only water Mascha won’t drink is the tap water at his house in Harlingen, Texas. “This is reclaimed water from a local river. There is a slightly distinct, rather unpleasant smell and a bit of bitterness,” said Mascha when asked what it would be like to walk into his front yard, turn on the hose and swallow a few “fresh” mouthfuls. “it is not nice, that is why people buy bottled water.”

Ask Mascha about gourmet waters and he will rattle off statistics on TDS (total distilled solids), “minerality” and “virginality”, ending with a breathless summary of the water’s evocation of purity and vintage. “Rain water from Tasmania or glacier water from Patagonia or a natural carbonated water from Germany,” he says. “They taste very very different.”

As gourmet water migrates up the food chain Water Bars are in vogue and H20 has reserved a place on menus at Claridge’s Mayfair [London], the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons hotel and Miami’s ultra chic hotel – The Setai.

While gourmet water enjoys a boom, it’s less glamorous cousin supermarket bottled water is under attack worldwide. The environmental wastefulness of paying a €2 a litre for bottled water that is often no different than tap water is causing an environmental furor. The massive production and immediate trashing of billions of plastic bottles is yet another flash point for activists and environmentalists who are trying to stop the growth of the $50 billion a year bottled water industry.

“The fundamental issue is who owns the water,” said Jim Olson, a Michigan attorney who is engaged in a fight with the world’s largest bottled water company – Switzerland’s omniscient Nestle.

Maude Barlow, senior advsior on water to the UN General Assembly, describes privatization of water as a catastrophe. “The allocation of water [must] be decided in an open, transparent and democratic forum,” she said while warning that water policy is often conducted without public participation. Referring to the March 2009 World Water Forum in Istanbul, she said it was “a trade show for the world’s largest corporations” and “bankrupt of ideas.”

"Like beer aficionados who abhor tasteless Budweiser, water connoisseurs are now setting the standards and rankings for an entire new taste experience – pure water."

Barlow said international water policies are being secretly drawn up by “the lords of water” and called for a public debate on the future of water.

Barlow’s documentary “Flow- For the Love of Water” and her “Unbottle It” tour are part of a growing movement worldwide to protest bottled water and have tap water declared a basic human right. “If we allow the commoditization of the world’s freshwater supplies, we will lose the capacity to avert the looming water crisis,” wrote Barlow. “We will be allowing the emergence of a water elite that will determine the world’s water future in its own interest. In such a scenario, water will go to those who can afford it and not those who need it.”

As industrial pollution, overpopulation and wear and tear on the planet take its toll, pure water is disappearing. Each calorie of diet requires roughly one litre of water to produce, thus a western diet of 2,500 calories consumes approximately 2,500 litres of water a day. Meanwhile, an estimated 2.2 million people a year die each year due to lack of clean water. However, there is little evidence that governments are addressing the issue with urgency.

The earth’s fresh water is finite, and represents less than one half of one percent of the world’s total water stock. Start multiplying the addition of some 85 million more humans per year and the already depleting reserves of fresh water and the word crisis is an understatement. Water wars are not just likely, they are inevitable.

But in 2010, that scenario still seems more Hollywood than hometown. Most nations still have drinkable tap water and some -- Manhattan for example -- have outright tasty water. Yet entire swaths of the world have either no water, or water so polluted that it must be treated like hazardous waste. Consumption of bottled water, grew a thousand fold between 1984 and 2005. For much of the past decade the bottled water industry grew 20% a year. Buying water by the bottle is now so popular that this year sales of water in Europe are approximately €25 billion.

Sometime soon – in less than five years, sales of bottled water are expected to pass soft drinks and become the highest grossing beverage sold on earth.

The environmental case against bottled water is easy. Billions of plastic bottles are trashed every year and not recycled. Corporations are quickly taking control over yet another natural resource. And the blatantly unjust differences between those who can afford a €12 bottle of glacier water and the 20% of the world which has limited or no access to clean water.

But is it fair to blame private water companies for decades of government failure? If 20% of the world’s population lack’s access to fresh water that is a catastrophe, but placing the blame on the doorsteps of Nestle reeks of convenience.

Blaming water companies for exporting bottled water while millions have no public drinking facilities is like criticising NorthFace for selling tents at the same time that millions of people in the world are homeless.

While industrial giants like Pepsi and Coca Cola can be criticised for using public water, then purifying it and selling to the public under the brand names Aquafina or Dasani, there is a far bigger change now taking place in the world water market.

“The whole concept is enjoying the difference in things, rather then finding the best thing,” says Mascha. “Fifteen years ago people had one cooking oil in their kitchen, now they have three,” says Mascha whose FineWaters website may be the world’s most complete guide to gourmet bottled water. Take a stroll through his website and you’ll find bottles designed with the care usually reserved perfume bottles.

"This water comes from rain that was frozen solid centuries before the industrial revolution in a four billion year carbon release orgy."

As he tours the world holding water tastings, Mascha tests and exhibits samples of vintages ranging from Fijian aquifer water to Eco, a pure water found in a rose quartz cavern deep in the Brazilian Amazon. “The most exciting source for water are remote areas of the planet, unspoiled places where no one wants to live, like Tasmania, Lapland and Patagonia…When you say Patagonia, people immediately think of purity, of remoteness, of adventure, it is all very positive. Chile is a good place to find pure water and we will hear more and more about it. If you have a nice [water] source in Mexico people would not give it the same opinion as saying ‘water from Chile’.”

To better understand the frontlines in this new water world, I go the ends of the earth – the pristine ice fields of Southern Patagonia.

My first flight leaves Santiago, Chile and continues south for another 2,000 km into the heart of wild Patagonia. Arriving in Coyhaique, a frontier town and it's another bumpy nine hour drive to the remote port of Tortel, a picturesque harbor village with no roads, no cars and 500 person community that lives off timber and woodworking.

From Tortel, we board the M/V Huemules, a 30 metre cabin cruiser and chug to the edge of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, a sheet of ice the size of Switzerland. Here the constant rains build up the glacier, sending ice chunks the size of apartment buildings crashing into the Pacific. So many rivers and frosted mountain peaks crisscross these valleys that the map is covered with the letters S/N, [sin nombre] Spanish for “No Name.”

While Chilean wines have carved out shelf space around the world, Chilean waters are just now being introduced. I decide to investigate one of the small and new Patagonian water venture – a Chilean, family-owned water company called Waters of Patagonia based in the heart of the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields, a sheath of ice 350 km long and 400 metres thick. This is pure water – and for businesses an alleged pure play.

So much fresh water now roars out of these glacier that this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean isn't salty. You can drink it. Or bottle it.

“When people drink our water not only is this the purest water, it is also a new vision of the way the water should be,” said Ian Szydlowski, one of three siblings who owns Waters of Patagonia. Szydlowski explains that Crevasse Water meets all European Union standards for water purity in its natural state, no treatment required.

“Nature is the best filter,” says Allen “Bear” Szydlowski, the other partner in the business. “We have protected valleys that stretch for hundreds of kilometres and this is what is filtering our water.” Pointing to the untouched mountains and thick glacier on the horizon, he declares, “Our filter is a whole ecosystem.”

Science largely supports these claims. Located in the extreme southern hemisphere, their water reserves are thousands of miles south of the intoxicated northern hemisphere. This water comes from rain that was frozen solid centuries before the industrial revolution, centuries before the scourge of our current once in a four billion year carbon release orgy.

When they bottle glacier water, Crevasse (AKA Waters of Patagonia)  has a system so rustic that it seems pre industrial. First Ian rolls out three hundred metres of plastic tubing, like a guy about to clean his neighbor’s distant swimming pool. Then he unwraps an industrial length extension cord -- alternately yellow or orange and snakes it out between the berry bushes and the fledgling cyprus forest on a sandbar splitting another not-yet-named Patagonia river. With a generator hooked up, across a sandy spit of berry bushes, the water is pumped into a white tent that could pass for Buckminster Fuller's office.

"With a temperature of just three degrees Celsius, the water cools my mouth far better than any beer."

Slightly geodesic, pure white, the tent could sleep a half dozen people. Twice that if they were the kind of people inclined to sleep in this harsh environment. But instead of sleeping bags, the tent is jammed with tens of thousands of dollars of hi-tech bottling equipment. An Italian gadget whirls and clinks as it pneumatically attaches the perfect bottle top to each half litre bottle of Crevasse.

Water taken from Patagonia is today insignificant in the $50 billion a year water industry. But the zeal and vision of the small but growing coterie of entrepreneurs who realise a basic fact – the planet simply does not have enough water for a world human population that is approaching seven billion.

Allan “Bear” Szydlowski, Crevasse Water’s field manager, challenges environmentalists to find problems with Crevasse bottled water. “If the environmentalists want to protest, I invite them," he says gesturing to the rudimentary hose and tent “manufacturing” center. “But by the time they get here, the plant won't even be here anymore...This is nomad bottling.”

With their first shipments now arriving in shops from Dubai to London, waters from pristine Patagonia are just one of a growing band of water sources worldwide which has figured out what must be the most basic business idea of all time – people instinctively crave fresh water. It is easy to see why.

After spending a week in remote Patagonia, I had drunk more fresh water than any other time in my life, except for a brief stint in the 90’s where I imagined myself a marathon runner. In Patagonia, I drank the water, not from a bottle but further upstream, high in the glacier fields. With a temperature of just three degrees Celsius, the water cools my mouth far better than any beer.

It tastes round, like it expands in my mouth. I am surprised to find myself lost for words. Pure glacier water, which many think of as neutral or tasteless, is in fact much closer to champagne, without the alcohol of course. Pure glaciar water from Patagonia is surprisingly bubbly and leaves a smile on your face. Drink the water here, 800 metres above the Pacific Ocean and you have a shock -- the after taste.

What a shock to realise that for hundreds of thousands of years, this is how humans encountered water, yet today water is an ever more expensive luxury.

Like a fine wine, the pure Patagonia water goes down ridiculously smooth, and then kicks back with a smoothness that fills my mouth. As my Danish photographer coos, it’s like “a silk pillow.”

Photographs by Morten Andersen www.mortenphoto.com