In silence, our volunteer panel sniffed and swallowed seven water samples, approaching the task with the ritualized reverence of a fine-wine tasting: A sip of Philadelphia tap water. A sip of New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh. Sips of bottled Aquafina, Deer Park, and the cheapest dollar-store brand we could find.
In the end, the first-ever Inquirer water taste test’s top pick surprised us all. The rock-bottom water was a unanimous choice too. But in the middle, there were some wildly divergent views.
Before the big reveal, a little background:
The Philadelphia Water Department says nearly 40 percent of residents in customer surveys drink bottled water at home over tap because they believe there is either something wrong with the water or don’t think it tastes good — or both. It’s a black eye for the Water Department but costly for people who believe that they must shell out hard-earned money to buy in a bottle what they can get for pennies from the tap.
We spoke with residents. We visited the Water Department’s treatment plant and laboratory. We’ve been drinking from Inquirer spigots for years with no apparent ill effects. But we wanted more expert palates to weigh in.
We picked a panel of people with a keen interest in water quality: Craig LaBan, The Inquirer’s food critic; Beth MacKenzie, water sommelier and certified brewmaster; James Barrett, owner of Metropolitan Bakery in Fishtown; Barry Hosten, brewery manager of Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Somerdale, Camden County; and Ryan Martin, an accountant at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and a city resident.
MacKenzie — the first water sommelier we’ve ever come across — studied her craft in Munich, Germany, consults for brewers, and is now working for a brewery in Belgium. LaBan sniffs out the best restaurants, food, and brews. Barrett and Hosten filter and check the pH balance of water they use for bread and beer — both of which depend heavily on high-quality water. Martin drinks bottled water at home, shunning the tap, despite the added cost.
At Rite Aid, we purchased Deer Park, which bills itself as “100 percent natural spring water” from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina. At Dollar General, we purchased Aquafina, filtered and purified municipal tap water sold by PepsiCo., and Clover Valley, the store’s private brand and the cheapest bottled water per ounce of the three.
Before collecting municipal water samples, we (and volunteer collectors who had just been in New York, Baltimore, or Pittsburgh) allowed taps to run for several minutes to flush out any standing water. Samples were stored in clean, clear, unmarked glass bottles. We also poured the store-bought water into identical glass bottles. All seven bottles were refrigerated for two hours and removed 15 minutes before the taste test.
Panelists were served four ounces of each water in clear, clean glasses. All were numbered to disguise the source. Panelists were given a worksheet designed using Inquirer research and suggestions from MacKenzie.
After working their way silently through columns of the worksheet for appearance, aroma, mouthfeel, aftertaste, and overall taste, panelists rated each water on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being best. They then discussed their findings.
“Most are similar,” MacKenzie said when panelists put down their pens. “Then there are two that are very distinctive."
Martin noticed that some water was good in some categories, but flopped in others.
“I can tell the difference right away between Number 1 and Number 7,” Martin said, to the agreement of most.
“You can tell some were filtered more than others,” Hosten observed.
LaBan said one reminded him of municipal pool water, which turned out not to be good news for those rooting for the local favorite. But LaBan, it should be noted, drinks Philly tap water at home — he just filters it and says that resolves the chlorine taste for him.
All the judges were surprised that the cheapest bottled water, Clover Valley — which none of the panelists had ever heard of — was the runaway winner. A 1.5-liter bottle cost $1.75, or 2.3 cents an ounce.
Alas, Philadelphia tap water did not fare well, coming in second from last, only a notch above the universally loathed Pittsburgh brew. Both cities draw their water from rivers — and both meet all federal health standards.