John Zhu is just one of a handful of water sommeliers in China, who make a profession out of tasting water and offering their expertise to hotels and restaurants across Asia.
A sommelier generally deals with wine, but evidently, the occupation is not solely limited to the alcoholic beverage. For instance, Zhu samples naturally carbonated water imported from Slovenia into his country.
A pioneer in this niche industry, Zhu says he’s used to being on the receiving end of skepticism, with people often asking him if all water doesn’t taste the same.
Although water might seem like a nondescript beverage, Zhu says different minerals give each variation its own unique characteristics. He explains;
“Water is just like wine, the sources and minerals determine the taste. If the water has a lot of calcium, it tastes sweet and chalky. If it’s rich in magnesium, it tastes metallic. If it contains sodium, it tastes salty.”
To further buttress his point, Zhu samples a Slovenian water brand, saying it contains the highest concentration of magnesium of any water in the world, resulting in a strong metallic taste.
Zhu also brews the same type of tea with five different brands of water from different sources and surprisingly, the results vary dramatically.
He has gone ahead to educate aspiring water sommeliers, by establishing the Purelogica Academy last year, which now has 70 students training with him.
The majority of his students are hotel frontline staff — typically in restaurant or bar service — who were previously unaware of common water blunders.
John Zhu says it’s essential (for staff) to know that the taste of the water can interfere with the taste of the wine. “If you select a bottle of very elegant and smooth red wine, but pair it with water with high level of carbonation, it could be a disaster.” He adds that the taste of the water is very strong and can easily numb your palate.
Interestingly, the price of luxury is quite expensive. For instance, a bottle of Norway’s Lofoten Water, sourced from the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic Circle, can be gotten for $80.
But Zhu explains that just because a water is expensive, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. The price of water typically depends on origin — and whether the extraction point is isolated from any human activity.
“People will say (they are) paying so much for the fancy bottle designs. But that’s not true,” Zhu clarified.
If there’s no infrastructure near the source, companies must invest heavily in roads, electricity, piping, waste management and factories.
On the high cost of transportation and production, the water sommelier further explains that because the production volume is so small, (water producers) can’t achieve economy of scale. Therefore, the price will be more expensive than the water sold to the mass market.”
Unsurprisingly, John Zhu is noncommittal on his own personal water preferences as his favourite water changes all the time. However, he mentioned that one of his job perks is that he is always extra hydrated!