Turning water into wine: how did simple H2O become a luxury commodity?

 

Fine Waters International Water Tasting Competition, in Machachi, Ecuador Photograph: Rodrigo Buendía/AFP/Getty Images

 

 

Over the last few years, an unusual and conspicuous sight has become commonplace in the cafes and eateries of Sydney’s inner suburbs: Frequency H20 Alkaline Spring Water. The water, which costs AUD$3.30 per 1 litre bottle, proclaims to be infused with the sound, light and literal frequencies of three very abstract “flavours”: Love (528Hz), Lunar (210.42Hz) and Rainbow (430-770THz).

Last year, Love became the first Australian water in nearly three decades to place first in the best bottled water category of the prestigious Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. Its creator, Sturt Hinton (not a typo; he’s ironically named after the desert), meets me in his local vegan fish and chip shop. It’s one of 400 stores he personally delivers his product to whenever stocks run low.

“It’s about lifting the spirits of the world, you know what I mean? And lifting my spirits,” he says. He was inspired to create Frequency H20 after a lengthy bout of crippling depression. “Just bringing delight to people, and it delivers this promise to consumers through having something so high quality and people can taste it. They can feel the difference. It’s clean, it’s light, they just love it. They love the idea. What a wonderful concept. Beautiful water.”

The story of Frequency H20 was enough to pique the interest of Katy Perry (whose management requested it during her recent Witness tour), Paris Hilton (now following @frequencyh2o) and the Veronicas, who share their appreciation online with such vigour they could be unofficial brand ambassadors. Following this year’s Berkeley Springs victory, the Australian government at large even took note, with Austrade selecting it for the official Commonwealth Games showcase. Though he claims to have invested $100,000 in its development, Hinton is unwilling to discuss the unique device he claims he designed (“It’s not like Coke is going to give up their trade secret.”) that produces his water by harnessing “the incredible natural alchemy of energised molecules”. He does acknowledge this nebulous air of naturopathy is central to its appeal. That and the trending but increasingly dubious belief that alkaline water is better for you than regular tap water.

In the luxury water business, a free good is repackaged and resold as aspirational. “I think it’s like the most marketable thing ever invented,” Hinton says.

The core of this concept of “fine water” might seem like a new phenomenon, but in fact it dates back to the Roman empire, where certain aqueducts were preferred, or even considered divine, and natural carbonated water was imported from Germania in earthen jars. The industrial revolution would literally poison the well, as drinking water became a vector for diseases like typhus and cholera. The rich could afford to have unspoiled water delivered from remote sources; poor people simply died until municipal chlorination in the early 20th century helped people live longer.

The story of water, then, is the story of the world – and the luxury industry is cashing in.

Hinton’s frequency-infused industry darlings are just the tip of the iceberg. Some premium waters such as Svalbarði, sold locally for A$115 per 750ml bottle, are literally made from icebergs harvested on expeditions to the Arctic Ocean. Water bottles with crystals in them and crystal-infused water like that of Australia’s Madam Dry (A$49.99 per 12 pack) are trends within a trend, inspired by Instagram’s wilderness of “wellness”, the regimens of Miranda Kerr and there’s that naturopathy again: Madam Dry lists what astrological sign the moon was traveling through when “brewing” commenced. Premium, luxury or fine water has even co-opted much of the wine industry’s terminology – “varietal”, “mouthfeel” “terroir” – as well as introducing some of its own. “Total dissolved solids”, for instance, is a measurement scale unique to understanding why and how a water tastes and even feels the way it does. Water from the Fiji Islands, with its TDS of 222, is said to be smooth and velvety. Water like Vichy Catalan from Spain, with its TDS of 3054, is said to be extremely salty and complex.

The phenomenon isn’t particularly new. In 2005, “water sommelier” Martin Riese caught the attention of the media when he created a water menu at Berlin’s First Floor restaurant after a guest complained about the taste of the water on offer. By 2008 he’d published Die Welt des Wassers (The World of Water); in 2010 he was certified by the German water trade association; and in 2013 he landed in Los Angeles, after receiving an O-1 visa for his “extraordinary knowledge of water”.

As the country’s first certified water sommelier, he launched a 45-page water menu at Ray’s & Stark Bar. Two days later, he was a national curiosity, covered on Good Morning America, Fox News and CNN, and even interviewed by television science presenter Bill Nye. He opened a $100,000 bottle of water for a tasting with Diplo and 2Chainz. He appeared on late night host Conan O’Brien’s show in September 2013.

“Pretty much every day, I have people rolling their eyes when they hear the words ‘water sommelier,’ and when I even tell them that I can match water to food, more eye-rolling starts,” Reiss says. But, he stresses, he is driven by a loftier goal. “I want to give value to water. When people understand that water is not just water, they might rethink their use of water.

You may read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper here.

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