ISTS Asks: A Water Sommelier

11 min read

Water is critical to our survival, but do we spare a second thought about water as we consume it? We have so many different types of drinking water available on our supermarket shelves, but do we wonder about the differences between them?

This World Water Day, ISawtheScience sits down with Sam Wu, a certified water sommelier in Singapore to learn more about drinking water.

1. What is your inspiration/ motivation in being a water sommelier?

After some time in Germany, I realised there is so much knowledge about water and its taste that most people have no clue about and have no access to. These are important information pertaining to one’s health, spending, enjoyment and way of life. Additionally, there’s a shockingly large amount of misinformation out there regarding water. 

It’s quite sad because we all know water is essential and we consume so much of it per day, yet most people have no basic idea of its taste or minerals and buy into expensive gimmicks like oxygenated water or alkaline water.

More people need to learn and understand about water so they can learn how to enjoy it properly and make informed decisions about what to drink and what to buy. 

2. Could you tell us about the general types of drinking water available, and the key differences between the waters?

There are many ways to classify water actually, but the first question to ask yourself before you drink anything is, does this water come from nature – unaltered, or does it come from a machine?

From the natural category, we can then subdivide it further based on source (Underground Spring, Ice berg, Glacier), mineral levels or even the type of dominant minerals. 

There are many ways one can purify water and so there are things like reverse osmosis water, distilled water and desalinated water. But in general, a highly purified water would be very low in minerals or devoid of them unless it is re-mineralized. 

3. What can you tell us about why different types of drinking water taste different?

It all literally boils down to the minerals in the water, which determines everything from its taste, texture and body of the water. Another factor is the extent of carbonation and at times, off-flavors. 

Depending on the type, quantity and composition of the minerals, you get a different experience. In general, the more minerals, the stronger the intensity of taste and the thicker the texture. The composition also affects the perceived taste – so higher amount of sodium will produce a saltier taste for example. On the extreme end, a highly purified water devoid of minerals also has a strong taste. 

However, taste can also be influenced by packaging, branding, off-flavours, etc, which one should learn to identify. Blind Tasting is thus paramount and what we go through during a Water Sommelier course.

4. What do you think is the importance of understanding the different types of drinking water available to us?

The implications of not having any understanding of drinking water are huge – from one’s personal enjoyment to more serious ones on health and money.

Health

Water contain minerals which are essential for one’s health. The Europeans are even using some Natural Mineral Waters rich in certain minerals as health supplements.  

There are also a lot of urban legends and misinformation about water, for example, people thinking that drinking a natural mineral water would lead to one having kidney stones. 

It is also my personal belief that long term drinking of highly purified, mineral-deficient water is one of the causes for people having calcium-deficiency and low bone density.

Cost

Many of us are easily fooled by marketing gimmicks widely prevalent in the Bottled Water industry – such as alkaline water, oxygenated water, hydrogen water, etc – and literally paying a price for it. 

In my opinion, it is unnecessary and frankly wasteful to spend on bottled highly purified water or extravagant filter machines that costs thousands. One might as well drink from the tap, filtered with a basic filter, which will costs far less. 

If any money should be spent on water, it should be for imported natural mineral waters.

Enjoyment 

Different waters have different taste profiles due to their different mineral profiles. However, most people don’t even know this or how to select their waters critically – they simply buy based on branding and packaging.

Using the right water also has implications on making teas and coffees and even soups and cocktails. 

Additionally, there’s also water-food and wine pairing.

5. What sort of taste profile do you look for in a water? What defines a “good” water?

It depends on my mood and to a certain extent, my need. If say, I’ve just had a very heavy meal, I am likely to reach out for something lighter to flush my system, and so I will go for a water with low mineral content.

If I’ve just had a very intensive workout, I would go for something stronger and in fact, saltier, to replenish my electrolytes, and so I will go for a water with very high mineral content. 

I would also like to add that when it comes to taste, one’s preference is molded by one’s culture and upbringing. Generally speaking (and according to sales figures), a German may prefer a water higher in mineral content and one that is sparkling, but a Singaporean may much prefer a still water that is lower in mineral content. 

Some people may also train themselves to accept and adapt to a more intense-tasting water out of necessity. A water that is rich in calcium may honestly not taste the most pleasant, but it is certainly good for you and so one can grow accustomed to it after drinking it for some time.

The “best” waters are always natural mineral waters. This means no purification, no additives and no nonsense done to the water or added to the water. One can sometimes tell if a water is purified or not, but it can be difficult.

6. How sensitive taste buds is required to be a water sommelier? Could you describe the distinction between the types and/ or quantities of minerals in a water?

Everyone has different levels of sensitivity thresholds, but in my experience, most if not everyone can easily pass the basics of telling a low mineral from a high mineral one. 

At the most basic level, a Water Sommelier must be able to identify if a Water is classified as Very Low in Mineral (<50mg/L), Low (50-250mg/L), Medium (250mg/L-800mg/L), High(800-1500mg/L) or Very High (>1500mg/L).  

At a higher level, a water sommelier trains to identify the dominant minerals in the water such as calcium, magnesium and sodium. water sommeliers also taste for bicarbonates, sulphates and chlorides. We also talk about fluorides, iron and off-flavors. 

At an even higher level, we identify specifically, calcium sulphate, calcium bicarbonate and sodium bicarbonate. This does require much more exposure and training.

At the highest level, we directly identify the brand of the water. 

7. What is your favourite water, and why?

A different favorite water for a different occasion ☺ 

Having said that, there are a few brands I really love. Vichy Catalan is definitely one of my favorites – savory and very healthy, and there’s really nothing that tastes like it in the market.

I love naturally sparkling natural mineral waters that have not had their carbon dioxide content fortified. One such brand is Krondorf.  Unfortunately, one can only get these waters from Europe.  

For Very Low Mineral Waters, my favorite is ISBRE from Norway – one of, if not the best. It is a natural mineral water with one of THE LOWEST Total Dissolved Solids, TDS (~4mg/L) in the world. 

For easy drinking water, Hildon, the water that is drunk by HM The Queen and one which I distribute as well, is really nice.

8. To a layperson, most drinking waters are same or similar, and mineral waters are pretentious or “atas”. What would you say to encourage people to appreciate the different types of water more?

I agree with your observation – people definitely don’t appreciate the differences in water enough. But honestly, I do not blame them. This is because the knowledge is still very widely inaccessible even on the internet. 

I would say this to them:

If you want to better your health, save money and make better sense of the 2-3 liters of water you drink daily – so as to find out what THE “BEST water” is, do your body a favor by learning the essential basics of water and its tastes.

9. What would be the best temperature appreciate a water (chilled, warm, room temperature), and why?

If it is for personal enjoyment, it’s really up to you. I’ve had customers who prefer drinking sparkling water at room temperature, though I would always recommend them to drink it icy cold. This is because for a Very High Mineral Water like Vichy Catalan, which I distribute in Singapore, its perceived saltiness is enhanced when drinking at room temperature. Also, the sparkling becomes less tight, and the water loses carbonation very quickly – just imagine drinking warm cola… The same principle applies. As colder water numbs taste buds, more often than not, this enhances the enjoyment in a warm environment like Singapore. 

For Still water, I personally think it simply tastes nicer chilled. How chilled? It’s up to you and the occasion. 

For tasting purposes, definitely room temperature as colder water numbs taste buds, which, affects one’s ability to taste properly.

10. We expect water to be cheap, or even free, so it is surprising that natural mineral waters can command the prices that are tagged to them. So what justifies the prices that these waters are pegged at?

Unlike purified waters, natural mineral waters are 100% natural and bottled at source without any form of purification. This is the law, especially for natural mineral waters from the European Union. This means that it is paramount to protect the source and its surroundings from contamination and over-exploitation – something bottled water companies invest heavily in.

A significant part of the cost also goes to lab-testing. Because the waters are 100% natural, Singapore import regulations are extremely strict to ensure the product is safe from contaminants and bacteria. It is not uncommon to see the Singapore Food Authority publicly black-listing water brands due to E-Coli contamination. 

And of course, as a naturally sourced product coming from an environment that is clean and far away from industrial activity, it is expensive to transport and export the product. Also, in Singapore, storage and end-mile logistics costs are very expensive.  

11. Are there any benefits in changing the type of water we drink?

Yes, drink widely from different types of natural mineral waters to gain different benefits such as health, utility and taste experiences.

12. What are some common misconceptions about water you have received as a sommelier?

That “Water is just water lah…”

And oh, “Eh don’t drink too much mineral water arh, later kenna kidney stones…”

13. This World Water Day, what do you wish more people understood about water?

That water is so much more than just H2O and hydration. Understanding more about water, its tastes and mineral characteristics can help you make better informed choices about what to drink, so as to better your health, save more money, and help you enjoy and appreciate such an important beverage that you put into your body. 

Written by Raphael Ng
Photos by Sam Wu
Illustrations by Jasreel Tan

Leave a Reply