From Springs to Spills: How Does West Virginia's Water Taste to International Judges?

Mar 1, 2015

Bottled water display
Credit photo by Cecelia Mason

Appalachia is no stranger to industrial or environmental disasters that affect our water. Because of crumbling water infrastructure in many coalfield communities, folks often turn to bottled water for regular use.

But not all bottled water is equal. At least that’s according to judges at the 25th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting & Competition, which took place February 19-22. The competition judges the taste of bottled water, purified water, and municipal city waters from across the world were judged.


At the water tasting and competition this year, there was some talk about the recent derailment in Fayette County.

“Well, it's tragic. What has happened in West Virginia. And two years in a row right before the water tasting, it's almost ironic," said Arthur Von Wiesenberger, referring to the timing of last year's competition, which took place about a month after the Elk River chemical spill. Wiesenberger who has trained the judges at Berkeley Springs every year since the competition started in 1990.

“I guess on the good side, it brings an enormous amount of awareness to the importance of water. And how we take clean pure water for granted until you do have a disaster. And then you do realize that this is something that's very subject to contamination and to problems.”

Wiesenberger added that throughout the competition's twenty-five years, some of West Virginia's water has been judged as the best tasting water in the world.

Credit photo by Cecelia Mason

The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting & Competition judges bottled water and municipal water. And guess which city won the best tasting water in the world, back in 1991, and 1993, 1994? Charleston West Virginia.

Yes, that same water, which last year became notorious across the globe for its poisonous taste of liquorice-infused MCHM- that water previously won gold medals at the International Water Tasting Competition.

Credit photo by Cecelia Mason

And since last year’s chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia, storekeepers say they've seen an increase in the number of bottled water sales.

Volunteers in Kanawha County helped with water distribution during last year's water crisis that affected the drinking water of 300,000 people.

Allan Hathaway owns the Purple Onion grocery store at the Capitol Market. “Bottled water sales have been up over the last year. A lot of consumers are switching to bottled water, not only because of the water issue but also cutting back on soft drinks."

The Purple Onion does sell spring water from West Virginia, including water from Sweet Springs in Monroe County.

In previous years, the Sweet Springs water company won four international first-place awards for the best-tasting water at the Berkley Springs Intentional Water Tasting and Competition.

Sweet Springs Valley Water Company is located near the site of one of West Virginia's historic mineral springs hotels. Before her death, 102-year old Pauline Baker told The Traveling 219 Project what it was like to grow up in Sweet Springs during the 1920s. She described those days gone by, when fine ladies used to bathe in the mineral waters wearing suits down to their knees, and guests from all over the world used to dine in the great Jeffersonian Hall. When the hotel was abandoned during the Great Depression, she said the neighborhood children used to go down to swim in the mineral pools.

Sweet Springs is just one example of the many old springs resorts that used to exist throughout West Virginia. Berkeley Springs is also home to one of those early resorts and is still a popular tourist destinations today. The Greenbrier is another.

However celebrated West Virginia's water has been throughout the years, this year many overseas companies outranked local water companies in the bottled water categories. 1st place for the best bottled water this year was awarded to Fengari Platinum, Platinum Class Mineral Water, Athens, Greece. Best Sparkling water also went to a Greek company– Daphne-Ultra Premium Quality Natural Mineral Sparkling.

This year one company from W.Va. did win one of the top awards: Lesage Natural Water from Cabell County, West Virginia won the fourth place award for a new category: best purified water. Their water is not taken directly from a spring, like Sweet Springs, but rather is taken from a well and is then put through a filtration system. Lesage is located along the Ohio River.

Ranking just after Lesage for 5th place for the best purified water was Mountain Drop, Linthicum, MD, which bottles water that is shipped from Berkeley Springs.

Another Appalachian winner this year was Halstead Spring Water in East Tennessee, which won third prize for the world's best bottled water. In 2000, Halstead Spring won the gold medal at the competition. The company's owner, John Beitz, says that their water business is booming, and they're looking to expand and hire about one or two new full time employees in the next year. The spring water that they bottle comes directly from a spring, known to locals in Speedwell, TN as "cold spring." Beitz says the water they sell lives up to that reputation. 

Cecelia Mason of Shepherd University contributed to this story. She was one of the judges at this year’s Berkeley Springs Water Tasting and Competition.