Photo courtesy of Martin Riese
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Beaches on the German island of Sylt, near water sommelier Martin Riese’s hometown of Aventoft.
America’s first water sommelier believes that the more we think about what we drink, the more we will care about the planet. But first, he has to get people to take him seriously.
This is a story about water and one man, and there’s no better place to start than with water and another man.
On December 9, 1971, Bruce Lee sat down with Canadian journalist Pierre Berton for the martial artist’s first and only English-language interview. The conversation lasted nearly 30 minutes and covered myriad topics: the differences in Eastern and Western media; being an Asian in Hollywood; Lee’s new-at-the-time martial arts school, set up for instruction in judo, karate, Chinese boxing. The footage was lost soon after the filming finished and would not be found until 1994, 21 years after Lee’s death.
When it did finally air, the interview made an immediate splash, almost as if a charismatic Lee had been summoned from the past to provide sage wisdom to Baby Boomers, all grown up. Of everything Lee said in those 30 minutes, what’s remembered most in popular culture is his 15 seconds about water, the words appearing on everything from T-shirts to protest signs in his native Hong Kong.
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless—like water,” said Lee, musing on resilience while riffing off lines he’d spoken during his short-lived role on the TV series Longstreet. “Now, you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Nearly 50 years since Lee first uttered those words, there’s another man in Hollywood talking about water and the ways we can learn from it. The ways we should—must!—pay attention to it. Sure, how these men discuss one of Earth’s most precious natural resources is more different than alike, and yes, one man is known for a hand in the shape of a fist while the other has his around a glass. But like Lee, that man wasn’t raised in the United States. Like Lee, that man has sometimes been the subject of jokes. And unfortunately for him, the jokes come easily when they hear that he, Martin Riese, is America’s first water sommelier, curating menus and tastings around what he calls “the most important beverage on the planet.”
Perhaps most importantly, like Lee, Riese is taking cues from the element he considers most beloved, going with the flow and flowing where he’s able, taking opportunities as they come, and sharing why we should care about water with anyone who cares to listen.
“Water is not just water,” he says to me one sunny October afternoon, shining bright from Los Angeles via laptop with the urgency of a theater attendant walking you to your seat just before the lights dim and the show starts. OK, I think. Off we go. Down into waterworld.
Martin Riese grew up in the village of Aventoft, population 460, the northernmost point of contiguous German territory. The town is 12 miles inland from the North Sea, separated from Denmark in the north by the Vidå River and Ruttebüller Lake. Everywhere Riese turned, whoosh, there was water: the sight of it, the smell of it. Listen hard enough, even the trickle, gurgle, and slap of it. “I was always surrounded by water, throughout my whole childhood,” says Riese, a trim, tan, bespectacled man in his mid-40s. “I think that’s also why I love water so much.”
Starting when Riese was four years old, on vacations—to the Danish North Sea, Spain, France, Austria, Switzerland, southern and East Germany—his parents noticed something curious: One of the first things he’d do in any new destination was stumble to the sink, turn on the tap, fill a glass, and drink. Riese was fascinated by the idea that water tastes different in different places, but didn’t have the faculties to describe why, nor could he understand. Considering how many worse things he could be doing as a child in new surroundings, his mother and father let him be.
Riese’s interest in water continued, but there was no force of direction for his passion; it was a meandering stream instead of a rushing river. And so after high school he became a DJ, organizing parties and spinning aggressive, progressive trance music that clocked in at 160 beats per minute. Eventually, Riese grew tired of the late nights and loud music, but realized he liked the hospitality element of it all: he was helping people enjoy themselves, like a courier to only good times. Figuring that food and drink were some of life’s greatest pleasures, he went to school for a degree in restaurant management.
In 2005, after apprenticing around Germany, Riese was the deputy maître d’ at the Michelin-starred First Floor restaurant in the Palace Hotel Berlin. His return to water began here, sort of, via an unhappy guest, who approached Riese to complain. You have more than 1,000 wines on the menu, yet you’re just serving one type of water, Riese remembers him saying. And I don’t like the taste.
After the guest left, Riese couldn’t shake the fact that he saw annoying truth in what the man said. It was niggling, the idea. That in the restaurant industry, where it was all about options, why then was there only one question about water: still or sparkling? Riese got to work: researching, reading, sipping, swilling. In 2006, he curated a water menu for the restaurant, with more than 35 different mineral waters from around the world. The clientele was receptive, and Riese’s profile around the city began to grow: When a Saudi Arabia delegation visited Berlin’s City Hall for a meal with the mayor, Klaus Wowereit, it was Riese who was tapped to select the accompanying water. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, Wowereit was so thrilled with the pairings—so delighted that such an offering was available in the German capital—that after tasting some of the water he flung his arms out and cried, “Ah! Berlin!”
By 2009, Riese had coauthored a book on water with Rose Marie Donhauser, a Berlin-based food critic and writer. Titled Die Welt des Wassers (The World of Waters), it charts the differences between mineral, medicinal, and table waters; traces water-related myths and legends; and champions the health benefits of water. A year later, in 2010, Riese received the status of a Mineral Water Sommelier from the German Mineral Water Trade Association after training for two weeks in the “theory of waters,” “sensations of waters,” “marketing and consulting in beverage trade,” and “marketing and consulting in catering and gastronomy.” Today, the association has nearly 200 members in more than 25 countries.
That Riese first found footing as a water sommelier in Germany is of little surprise. In the European Union, Germany is second only to Italy in the amount of bottled water consumed, with 46.2 gallons per capita. Mineral water—created as rainwater flows through the earth, acquiring minerals along the way—is the object of particular pride and passion for its association with healing properties. (Experts say there are around 3,000 brands of bottled mineral water around the world, from natural sources like mountain springs and icebergs.) Across the continent, Germany has the largest market of different mineral water brands, with the mineral content of each water determined by each respective region. It is highly regulated, with EU law stipulating that anything calling itself “mineral water” must be minimally treated.
Because of its size and population, the United States has the biggest consumer market for bottled water worldwide. Despite being a “major culprit” in ocean pollution and a “symbol of human environmental desecration,” according to National Geographic, plastic bottles are part and parcel of the bottled water industry—and that industry is booming: Since 2010, bottled water has steadily increased in sales volume year after year, and in 2016, bottled water outsold soda for the first time. It has done so every year since. Americans consumed 14.4 billion gallons of bottled water in 2019, up 3.6 percent from 2018. Bottled water’s retail dollar sales also jumped last year, notching $34.6 billion, and interest in imported bottled water is also rising steadily. In a 2019 poll, 84 percent of Americans had a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” opinion of bottled water, according to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia and bills itself as the “authoritative source of information about all types of bottled waters.”
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When it comes to water, Germany still outdrinks the United States: Bottled water consumption per capita in the U.S. is 43.7 gallons, with just 26 percent of Americans buying name-brand bottled water and another 23 percent opting for store-brand bottles. Under FDA guidelines, bottled water can be labeled as “artesian water,” “groundwater,” “distilled water,” “deionized water,” “reverse osmosis,” “mineral water,” “purified water,” “sparkling water,” “spring water,” and “sterile water”; the agency also requires these terms be included on the product label to “enable consumers to easily determine the type of water they are purchasing,” says Joe Doss, president of the IBWA. But does anyone actually know what they’re buying? After all, 63 percent of the non-sparkling domestic bottled water that Americans buy is treated water from municipal sources like wells, lakes, rivers, or reservoirs—the same original source as tap water. (Somewhat ironically, American consumers cite taste, quality, and safety as their top reasons for choosing bottled water over other packaged beverages.)
Though Doss acknowledges the common point of origin for tap water and several bottled waters, he’s adamant that the end product is different. “The chemical and physical quality of this [bottled] water is not the same as water that comes out of the tap,” he says, adding that “on a gallon-for-gallon basis, bottled water is required by law to be tested for safety at least 30 times more often than tap water.”
Regardless, it’s here that Riese needles back at critics who knife him for his work. Those who say that advocating for such choice around water is a joke. What a luxury. What a waste of time. What . . . bullshit? But Riese, who in 2011 came to the U.S. on an O-1 visa—reserved for people with “extraordinary ability” or a “level of expertise indicating that the person is one of the small percentage who has risen to the very top of the field of endeavor”—doesn’t fold. Americans are already drinking bottled water, he’ll counter. But if the bottled water they are drinking is mostly originating from municipal sources, why not help them pivot away from that, whether that means they go back to the tap or turn to natural waters? Why not raise awareness about companies that have built-in programs for social impact and giving back? In sum: Why not help consumers discover and drink the best waters, both for themselves and for the Earth?
This is a familiar refrain in the small but passionate fine water community—an unofficial designation for water lovers of the world—where there is an immense gulf between “commodity” waters (which originate from municipal sources and don’t “need” to be bottled) and natural ones (which do, sourced as they are from far-flung locales). Water, they argue, should be thought of like food or wine: How has it been fiddled with? What’s been removed, and has anything been added? Is it sourced responsibly?
Think, Riese says, of a carrot.
“Where should your carrot come from? From a farm, or from a grocery store in a plastic bag? From a farmer, ideally,” he says. “Now where should your water come from? In a remote area relatively untouched by Mother Nature, or an urban factory in the middle of a major city?”
He waits, leaning forward to open a palm to me, and nods, eyebrows raised. Exactly.
Bottled water has the smallest water and energy use footprint of any packaged beverage: On average, it takes about 1.4 liters of water to make one liter of bottled water, compared to just one glass of wine, which can require more than 100 liters of water. Bottled water also accounts for less than 0.01 percent of all the water used in the United States each year. But Riese, who says he is “not against tap water whatsoever,” is advocating for more transparency, whatever the water.
“Where there’s enough water, and it hasn’t been stolen, it needs to be sustainably sourced. That’s very, very important to me,” he says. “And I have a strong belief that eventually, the American consumer will say, ‘I want to know where my water is coming from.’”
In 2013, after two years of traveling around the world and tasting water, Riese unveiled a signature water program at Ray’s & Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, replete with a 20-item menu. Waters began at $8 (Waiākea volcanic water) and ranged all the way to $20 per 0.75 liter bottle (Berg, from Western Greenland). Riese made a late-night appearance on Conan to promote the menu, and brought along several of the waters he offered at the restaurant. O’Brien was skeptical, and to put it politely, scandalized that anyone would—and should—pay more for water.
“This tastes like what you drink when you’re dying on a raft,” he said at one point, after sampling Vichy Catalán, a naturally sparkling well water from Spain that has 1 gram of sodium per liter. (A Big Mac, for comparison, has 1.01 grams of sodium per sandwich.) No matter: Water sales at Ray’s & Stark Bar jumped 500 percent that first year. A year later, in 2014, Riese introduced a similar menu at Patina Restaurant in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, along with a two-hour, $50 water tasting. Other media appearances followed: In 2015, he opened a $100,000 bottle of Beverly Hills 9OH2O water with rapper 2 Chainz and producer and DJ Diplo for GQ magazine’s “Most Expensivest Shit” series, and in 2017, he visited the set of Bill Nye Saves the World as a guest on the episode, “Surviving in a World Without Water.” Since November 2018, Riese has been the water sommelier at luxury boutique hotel Petit Hermitage in West Hollywood, where he offers West Hollywood tap water on his menu for $0, alongside listings for other waters like Hallstein (Austria, $25), Vellamo (Finland, $13), Gerolsteiner (Germany, $12), Antipodes (New Zealand, $14), and a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Water is sometimes sharp and sometimes strong, sometimes acid and sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and sometimes thick or thin, sometimes it is seen bringing hurt or pestilence, sometimes health giving, sometimes poisonous. It suffers change into as many natures as are the different places through which it passes.”
Most recently, Riese appeared on Down to Earth, a Netflix travelogue that debuted in July 2020 and follows actor-host Zac Efron dude-ing around the world as he explores sustainability and wellness. In the show’s second episode, Efron and actor Anna Kendrick sit for a water tasting with Riese in Los Angeles. “It annoys me that this is so good. Because I don’t know how to describe it, but it tastes so strong,” Kendrick says after sipping Three Bays water from Australia, which Riese describes as “heavy” and reminiscent of olive oil. “Water has a flavor, for sure,” Efron agrees. “It’s a watery flavor.”
Riese delights in this challenge of converting skeptics into believers—of dismantling the idea that water has no flavor but that of water. There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. One. Flavor, he will say, tapping the table for emphasis, major of his own drumline. But he is also sympathetic to the untrained palate, acknowledging that unlike “normal,” where we can often rely on a combination of sight, smell, and taste to form our impressions of a bite or a sip, water on its own leaves you little to work with. If water is discolored or has an odor, after all, you should ideally not be drinking it in the first place. So how to actually describe its taste?
Water contains zero calories, zero carbs, zero grams of protein, and zero fat. It has no organic nutrients, but it can have trace minerals. Spend time with those in the fine water industry, and it will be mere minutes before you hear about total dissolved solids (TDS) levels, which represent exactly what they sound like: the total concentration of substances in water, which can affect the flavor. Typically, these substances include calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium cations and carbonate, hydrogencarbonate, chloride, sulfate, and nitrate anions. Much like terroir with wine, water can draw out these substances (and, some argue, its taste) from its surrounds. Generally, the higher the TDS level, the “harder” and “harsher” the water is considered.
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In 2003, a panel of testers came together for the World Health Organization to determine what they deemed “Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality.” Any water with less than 300 milligrams of TDS per liter is considered “excellent,” while anything greater than 1,200 TDS per liter was deemed “unacceptable.” FIJI Water, sourced from an ancient aquifer and known for its smooth taste, thanks to its 93 mg/l of silica, has a TDS of 222 mg. Hildon, which has a Royal Warrant for supplying water to Queen Elizabeth II and Buckingham Palace, has a TDS of 312 mg/l. On and on it goes, all the way up to Roi, which originates in Rogaška Slatina, Slovenia, holds the world’s title for the most magnesium-rich water, and has a dizzying TDS of 7,481 mg/l. (It tastes astoundingly metallic—almost as if you swallowed a filling.) Pairing water with your meal, instead of wine? Anything with a TDS of 800 can be treated like a red, while lower-TDS waters are more like whites.
A large component of water tasting comes down to the mouthfeel of the carbonation, which accounts for 75 percent of the flavor: Are there bubbles? If so, how many are there? How big are they? Tasters also consider the density of the minerals in the water (20 percent of the flavor), and the pH balance (5 percent): acidic waters have a pH of 6.7 or less, and can taste slightly sour, like the inside of an orange peel. More alkaline waters—with a pH of greater than 7.8—smack sweeter. Zaros, sourced from below the Psiloritis Mountain in Crete, Greece, is an example of an award-winning alkaline water, with a pH of 7.9. Dasani, Aquafina, Pellegrino, Perrier, and filtered tap water are acidic, with pHs of around 4. “The concept of pure water doesn’t exist,” says Riese.
Beamed through screens and circulated in click-worthy social media bites, Riese’s enthusiasm can seem like an act. But in conversation, he is painstakingly, actually earnest. Even if his credibility is sometimes beset by his own Dad-like cheers (“Water should never be a dry topic!”), Riese is genuinely thrilled about the idea that water is a vessel we can use to travel around the world. That it—so fundamental as a base in our foods and beverages—can change the way those foods and beverages taste, whether as ingredient or accompaniment. When I report that a mineral water registers salty and may pair well with a fatty steak, he leans forward in excitement. “Yes, exactly!” he cries. Another time, when I muse out loud that I am interested in mixing different waters in my oatmeal to see how it affects the flavor profile, he is overjoyed. “Do it!” he crows.
Riese has only once met a water he didn’t like, and even then, dislike isn’t the point. It was in Bad Oeynhausen, Germany: Mineral waters were set up like a bar, with taps available for trying any number of waters. “I tapped this one water and after I sipped I thought, my God, what is happening,” he says. “It was intense with iron. It tasted like blood. Would I drink it on a daily basis? Never! But that’s me, and there is no best water. It depends on you,” he says, leaning on the word and pointing at me through the screen.
At the end of the day, Riese says, it’s about choices. Because if more choices equal more knowledge, and knowledge is power, then surely some good can come of his work. If we pay more attention to where water comes from and care about its source, then we will think differently about it when we go home and turn on the tap, he reasons. And if we think differently, then maybe we will act differently: We’ll plug up the sink instead of letting the water run, and we’ll shut off the water when we’re brushing our teeth. We will finally treat water with more reverence.
“I really want to change our behavior to water and towards water,” says Riese. “That is really my passion—why I want to drive this idea home that water is not just water—because maybe we will start to rethink it. Because there are more than 700 million people out there that don’t have safe drinking water. That cannot be.”
Since 2006, Riese has been involved with the Hamburg, Germany–based charity, Viva con Agua de Sankt Pauli e.V., which helps some of the world’s poorest people gain access to clean drinking water, and whose tagline is Wasser für alle — alle für Wasser! (Water for everyone — everyone for water!). Riese has collaborated with them on festivals and events in Germany and the United States, and last year on his November birthday, hosted a fundraiser for the nonprofit to raise awareness of water inequality around the world. He says he will “absolutely” do so again this year, and again, and again.
Despite misconceptions, Riese is not the world’s only water sommelier, nor would he want to be. “The more the merrier, in my opinion,” he says of his 200-and-counting fellow water sommeliers. “The more we are, the more we know about water, the more we will appreciate water, and the better it is for this planet.”
One of Riese’s most well-known peers is Texas-based Michael Mascha, who has a Ph.D in anthropology and communication science from the University of Vienna and who founded the website finewaters.com in 2003. Like Riese, Mascha is from Europe (Austria, to be precise) and like Riese, Mascha has a particular moment in time that he can point to as evidence of the beginning of his walk into waterworld: In 2002, a doctor informed him that he had a heart defect and that he needed to stop drinking alcohol if he wanted to live. He went all in on water. Unsurprisingly, also like Riese, Mascha has long espoused the belief that water is rife with potential, if only people would listen.
“You can discover a beautiful world if you start paying attention, and your life will be so much richer if you understand that you can have different waters that pair with food,” he says. “You can have totally different experiences with it.”
In 2018, Mascha and Riese joined forces to cofound Fine Water Academy, which provides courses, lectures, readings, and certifications to those interested in becoming water sommeliers. In the past two years, nearly 100 people have received the designation after going through three months of remote training, tuning in everywhere from Bhutan to Brazil. In the past year specifically, Mascha says, interest has skyrocketed: enrollment has jumped and traffic to his website increased 1,000 percent. When I ask how he thinks Riese’s work has helped contribute to this growth, he laughs.
“Good question, but I think you know the answer,” he says. “He’s our man in Hollywood.”
In the coming weeks, on his website, Riese will begin selling “Martin 101” boxes, which will have a curated selection of waters from around the world and can be shipped to homes across the country. (All water should be room temperature and preferably poured into glass, and not plastic.) Riese will also open up bookings for virtual water tastings, so that interested parties can question him directly when comparing and contrasting. It is his hope that the tastings will spark interest and conversation.
A few days after I first speak with Riese, I collect a number of different waters with various TDS levels to taste with my family members. I share nothing with them ahead of time. Predictably, opinions vary: My mother, who lived in Germany for 17 years and who is accustomed to harsher mineral waters, notes the size and taste of the bubbles in Roi. My nine-year-old niece says confidently that FIJI Water has an “earth flavor.” My sister, who remembers childhood trips from our home in Germany to the Czech spa town of Mariánské Lázně, praises the Queen’s water as effervescent, with “gentle” bubbles on the back of the tongue. My six-year-old nephew, after sampling water from Australia with a TDS of 1,300, squints at me. “I’m used to swallowing pool water, and that’s what it tastes like,” he says. When I share this anecdote with Riese by email, he replies, as ever, with enthusiasm.
“I love to hear that,” he writes.
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