By Joe Pomento

Take a sip of water; roll it over the tongue. Taste buds immediately begin firing off information to the brain about the liquid's flavor. Is it salty? Earthy? Soft?

Listen in during a water-tasting contest and you might think that you are privy to a sampling from some of California's best wine cellars. Clean. Silky. Brilliant. Not all drinking waters warrant these superlatives. For instance, if you had attended a recent water tasting in a southeastern city, you would have heard comments such as crude, with an edge … or like a taking a gulp from a swimming pool … while another judge remarked that a sample tasted like a guppy had swum in it.

There's more to the taste of tap water than meets the eye. And in this case, it's the nose and tongue that have the starring roles.

As a noun, taste is the sense that identifies particular flavors by means of the tongue. Webster's defines taste as "the special sense that perceives and distinguishes the sweet, bitter, sour or salty quality of a dissolved substance and is mediated by the taste buds on the tongue." As a verb, it means to discern the flavor of something.

Although all water begins as two hydrogen molecules and one of oxygen, that's where the similarities end. All tap water may be created equally, but that resemblance quickly evaporates the farther you get from the source.
The reason is simple.

Water is called the universal solvent. It dissolves a little of anything that comes in contact with it. Wherever water goes, it gathers minerals and, therefore tastes along the way. The closer to the source, the better the water may taste.

"Water is as unique as fingerprints," said Arthur von Wiesenberger, a Santa Barbara author of several water books and a trained water master. "No two are identical. Water reflects the geologic strata it flows through as it absorbs a bit of the natural minerals and trace elements."

Although most people talk about the "taste" of tap water, that's not completely accurate, said Sylvia Barrett, team manager at the Metropolitan Water District's Water Quality Lab. What they are actually referring to is flavor, she explained.

In the March 25, 2000, issue of Science News, Nicholas Ryba of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, states, "Taste is something more that just a test-tube reaction. It's a sensation."

Flavor is comprised of a mixture of sensory information - taste, smell and the tactile sensation that food scientists call mouthfeel. What the average person considers taste, Barrett said, is more accurately described as a combination of flavor and aroma.

That's why when you have a cold nothing seems to "taste" quite right.

Based on this confusion between taste and flavor, it's easy to understand why scientists say that taste is the most elusive of the five senses.

Mouthfeel, added von Wiesenberger, who has swirled, sniffed and sipped thousands of water samples, is really the way you roll water over the tongue to pick up the various flavors on the palate. If the water is light, it will feel light. If there is weight to it, then there will be a sensation on the palate that water without it doesn't have.

Humans have approximately 100,000 taste buds and each one is connected to the brain by a nerve. Each taste bud senses one of four basic stimuli - sweet, sour, bitter and salty - from various parts of the tongue.

This, then, adds to the debate whether the best drinking water tastes like nothing or whether it has flavor.

Water should have taste, but it's one that most experts agree shouldn't stand out. It can be good tasting or bad and that goes back to the presence of minerals in it. For instance, the absence of sulfur and chlorine add to the taste of the water.

The nuances of good tasting water aren't just what you can taste, said J.W. Rone, producer of the Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, winter festival that hosts the Toast to the Tap water tasting every year. The best tasting water is tasteless, odorless and colorless, but even so, it still ends up tasting of something.

In 1990, von Wiesenberger conducted a water tasting for The American Institute of Wine and Food during which a panel of eight food and wine experts judged California municipal tap waters, each collecting their own tap water and bringing it to the tasting. Prior to the judging, the consensus was that the best tasting California drinking water came from the north and that probably San Francisco or Santa Cruz would win the challenge hands down. However, when the results of the blind taste tests were revealed, Southern California's Huntington Beach walked away with the top honors as the state's best tasting tap water.

"Water should have a positive taste," von Wiesenberger said. "There shouldn't be the absence of anything. For water to taste correctly on the palate, there must be certain minerals present. Potassium, magnesium, calcium and even small amounts of sodium give water its fullness. If not for these minerals, water, such as distilled water, tastes flat and dull."

The key, though, explained von Wiesenberger, lies in the ideal combination and concentration of these minerals. Good tasting water is a subtle combination of flavors.

"When there is a balance of minerals, they are harmonious and not offensive to taste," von Wiesenberger said. "A perfect concentration of minerals adds to the subtle nuances of a product whose most sought after quality is often considered to be tastelessness. Too high a mineral concentration and water takes on a tinny, metallic taste. Too low and water tastes dull and flat.

"Minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and silica give water a softness, a silkiness" von Wiesenberger added. "Body is another important element to the taste of water. It gives water roundness on the tongue as opposed to water produced by reverse osmosis, which oftentimes is bland tasting. Water should taste as if it had just been scooped from a running stream."

In the early 1960s, William Bruvold, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted some of the first findings regarding the importance of minerals to the taste of drinking water. Those studies showed that certain combinations and concentrations of minerals in water were more acceptable to tasters than others. His studies also concluded that removing all mineral taste from domestic water might actually reduce its drinkability.

Good tasting water is not the absence of everything. If it were, distilled water would be a No. 1 best seller. But Metropolitan's Barrett, a trained member of the district's flavor profile panel, a group that continually samples water to detect and treat taste and odor problems before it gets to consumers, said distilled water turns most tasters off because of its flat, dull taste.

Beside the naturally occurring minerals that are a part of tap water, drinking water suppliers, such as Metropolitan, must contend with flavors added by the treatment process. Chlorine is one of the most commonly perceived tastes associated with municipal water, said Barrett. Metropolitan has reduced the chlorine taste by substituting the disinfectant chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia.

Water chemists continue to prod, coax and test water to bring out its best, but in the end, they must contend with the consumers' varying taste sensitivities.

People tend to like what they are used to especially if they have been drinking the same water for a long time. Often people like the water they grew up with because they have imprinted that taste.

In von Wiesenberger's words, good tasting water is like drinking a fine wine. It has to have substance and resonance.