Wine into water: A water sommelière discusses the sensory characteristics of H2O

Birgit Kohler, Head of Organoleptic Department at BRITA, discusses the work of a water sommelière and what secrets lie beneath the surface of H2O.

Wine is one of many complex beverages where people can turn their passion and expertise into a profession. A sommelière or sommelier is one such occupation representing someone with an extensive knowledge and experience in wine, with the ability to identify its many flavour characteristics and ideal pairings. Baristas may not use terms like sommelière to describe their broad understanding of coffee – yet – but they do play a similar role. 

water sommelière
Birgit Kohler is the Head of Organoleptic Department at BRITA.

The understanding of water composition is another complex world, and I am proud to be a certified sommelière of this much used and transparent liquid.

A water sommelier is an expert in water – someone who is aware of its differences regarding sensory and chemical aspects. Like wine sommeliers, they often work in the hospitality business and advise in the choice of beverages. 

I trained to be a certified water sommelière with a comprehensive program at the renowned Doemens Genussakademie in Germany. This provided the basis for my understanding of water, chemically and physiologically, as well as the sensory perception of individuals and peer groups. 

I started working for water filtration company BRITA in 2008. Since 2013, I have been the Head of the Organoleptic Department and analysing the sensory aspects of water is my daily job. My qualification as a water sommelière is only one pillar of my profession and expertise. In addition to my background of studies in nutrition science, I am also a qualified coach.

At BRITA, my focus – alongside a team of trained experts – is on understanding the sensory perception of water, tea, and coffee and bringing this knowledge into product development.

Adequate hydration is the basis of all metabolic processes in our body and, thus, the basis of our health. Without any doubt, water is the most important foodstuff, but it is just as well the most underestimated.

Water offers a broad variety of sensory experiences but still, the majority of people would say that water is tasteless, or that there is no difference between waters. In reality, people call water “tasteless” because they do not pay attention to its sensory properties. 

Sensory of water is a complex interaction of all water ingredients. Additionally, sensory perception is only rarely a linear correlation of ingredients. 

For example, most people do evaluate water without any minerals as bitter, sour or slightly sweet. Water with only a few ingredients is perceived as “neutral”, while water with a lot of ingredients can generate several sensory experiences. The reason for this is, that we are surrounded by water day by day. Water in food and beverages, water for brushing our teeth or to drink. We do not realise how often our senses get in touch with water. From a physiological perspective, it doesn’t make any sense to receive sensory information about the taste of water. The senses of most people adjust to the water which they are used to. We are not used to water without ingredients.

water sommelière
The BRITA water wheel was developed to help describe the sensory characteristics of water.

Because people often lack words to describe sensory of water, the team at BRITA has developed the sensory water wheel. 

Sensory wheels describe foods and beverages and are a tool to train sensory panels. The BRITA Water Wheel displays the three main sensory dimensions of water: taste, odour, and mouthfeel.

The attributes of each sensory dimension are differentiated in the inner circle. The second circle is used to detail the quality of each attribute The outer circle contains so-called ‘reference substances’ – known to generate the corresponding sensory effect – and is designed especially for panel trainings.

We are not used to water without a few ‘extra ingredients’, and there are three main influencing parameters on the sensory of water: minerals, organic compounds, and substances from water treatment. I think each of them have their own specific fascinations. 

Minerals mainly influence taste and mouthfeel, while organic compounds and substances from water treatment affect odour and mouthfeel. They also influence each other. These compounds determine the water itself but also every beverage which is prepared with it, especially coffee.

I regularly host sensory water trainings. Since we started these at BRITA, each and every participant was able to differentiate waters according to their taste or,  more precise, according to their sensory properties. 

Tasting water is similar to tasting any other beverage. You need to be prepared properly and train regularly. This means no intense drinks or food at least one hour before the tasting, no perfume, no chocolate, et cetera. I personally drink warm filtered water in advance to a tasting to prepare my taste buds and I train as often as possible.

Your emotional condition has a huge influence on sensory perception. Therefore, before a tasting I try to take some time to sort my thoughts and to find my inner balance.

water sommelière
The BRITA Organoleptic Department includes (left to right): Alexandra Merz, Birgit Kohler, Marion Felleisen, and Vanessa Reinhardt.

And, of course, I prefer tastings in an adequate environment. Even a sensory professional like me can’t focus if there is a lot of distraction. That’s why most tastings take place in our sensory lab at BRITA. There the conditions are perfect: silence, comfortable temperature, odour-free air, light colours, and separate tasting booths.

When it comes to water, we look at similar sensory dimensions as you would for coffee: optic, odour, taste, aftertaste, and mouthfeel. Unlike in coffee, the role and importance of each sensory dimension and its corresponding attributes are quite different. For example, while optic is important in coffee, it is of minor relevance to water. I would say odour or smell plays the most similar role between both beverages.

However, the most important dimension in the sensory of water is mouthfeel. Whenever people are asked to describe water samples, they often use terms like “soft”, “flat”, or “drying”. So, water sensory is not only about taste and odour, it is also about the feeling that water causes during and after drinking. 

I want people to reflect on the sensory of water, encourage them to taste different waters in order to find their personal preference, and simply enjoy drinking water.

Water is a jewel which we have in our daily life without noticing it. It’s my hope that people are becoming more and more aware of its value. Water sommeliers are one way to raise awareness of the value and varied sensory qualities of water. The importance of water composition has become increasingly prominent when it comes to brewing coffee, and I can see this translating into how water is served in other ways by gastronomy. 

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