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.
Bottled or otherwise, there are now more people on earth consuming more water than ever before, and climate change just might be contributing to an increasing dearth of it with longer and more intense droughts.
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.
“Here in America, people do not even know anymore where the water is coming from. They think that a purified water is the same as spring water. Purified water finds mostly its origin in the municipal water system, so it’s actually tap water, which is already processed then filtered and with very small amounts of minerals added. The end product is a highly processed beverage from a factory. On the other hand, you have waters which are coming from a natural occurring source, like a spring, glacial, aquifer and so on. These waters are barely treated and you can actually taste the water’s origin. In wine terms, you would call it terroir.”
There had been five schools around the world where it was possible to become a certified water sommelier: two in Germany (one being the prestigious and original Doemens), one in Italy, one in China and one in South Korea. On 1 August last year, Riese established a sixth in the United States with his business partner and Fine Water Society founder, Michael Mascha. They recently certified their first water sommelier in Myanmar after three months of online courses, a verbal examination and a final project.
Mascha says most people in the industry would consider him an early catalyst for what the market now considers fine water. His own origin story has a familiar flavour: like Hinton, water saved him. In 2002, he says, his doctor told him “you can live or continue drinking alcohol”. He founded the Fine Water Society that same year, a sprawling, invite-only index of fine water from around the world that serves to define, explain and promote the ever-swelling industry.
“The water we are drinking is actually older than our planet,” Mascha says – and that in-built cosmic intrigue lends itself to all kinds of stories.
“We see a lot of claims around water. Microstructured, wetter, smaller molecules, alkalinity, frequency … those are all marketing messages created as there is no other story to tell,” he says. “There is no source or history to the water. It comes from a factory and the stories are made up to confuse.
“Michael Pollan, a USA-based food writer, famously believes: ‘When it says “healthy” on the package, it is probably not.’ Great water,” Mascha continues, “comes from unspoiled sources and they are usually remote.”
Jamal Qureshi’s Svalbarði water, for instance, is made of ice gathered from the glaciers in Kongsfjorden, part of the titular Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. That A$115 bottle might seem exorbitant to the layperson but it is far from the most expensive fine water on the market. That honour goes to Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani, a bottle of which sold for the jawdropping sum of £39,357 for 750ml in 2010, making it the most expensive bottle of water in the world according to Guinness, thanks in no small part to the bottle itself being 24-carat gold. Svalbarði, meanwhile, has drawn an incredible amount of attention to itself with a fable of production the envy of any winemaker.
Qureshi stumbled over the Svalbard region when he was young and travelling; obtaining water from it is “an extreme logistical and cost challenge” which he saw as marketing potential for a “brand that stands out to consumers”.
“Having a bottle that could match the story and be worth a purchase almost in and of itself was also critical. People have a ‘wow’ moment when they see it. Then when they see pictures of the ice gathering it is always a second ‘wow’ moment.”
Qureshi, who holds regular water tastings, explains that as with anything we put in our mouths, smell, taste and feel are vital. “Proper water should generally not have smell, which tends to be a sign of taint that is not good. Odourless is best. Mouthfeel is the other major component. From super light, airy, and smooth like Svalbarði, to creamy textures, to very mineral-heavy waters that start to almost have a tangible, ‘solid’ feel in the mouth. Carbonation obviously has a huge impact on mouthfeel as well, from very gentle bubbles to big and bold ones.”
Qureshi sees a social responsibility in his work too.
“We aren’t gathering sea ice,” he says of Svalbarði. “The icebergs are carved off of freshwater glaciers. Obviously we are gathering them from the sea and as such we are constantly reminded of the problems of rising sea levels and plastic pollution in particular.” Because of the latter, they use glass bottles; because of the former, they are carbon neutral, and are “now going carbon negative, so that each bottle will help actually preserve a piece of the Arctic ice cap.”
Qureshi recently moved his family from the States to Svalbard, close to where the whales now sing more deeply to hear each other over the noise of melting icebergs. “Living in Svalbard these issues have become very personal. I walk on the beach here in the middle-of-nowhere Arctic and pass by discarded plastic fishing nets that have washed in from the middle of the Atlantic. We live daily with freakishly warm temperatures, for this part of the world anyway, and I watch how the glacier fronts are retreating. I talk to old-timers and see their pictures of how the fjords used to freeze and no one could get a ship in here for five months in the winter. Now the local fjord hasn’t frozen in a decade and it rained this past January when it should have been -20C.”
Water sommelier Reise also sees himself as an advocate for a vital resource. “By promoting fine water, I hope I can do my part to protect areas around the world and open people’s mind that water is so much more than just a commodity.” He cites his involvement with Viva Con Agua, a charity in Hamburg that seeks to improve drinking water in developing nations. “I fight for people who don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water. I hope I can spark conversations with my water menu about the topic of water in general. The more we know about water the more we will protect it.”
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