Water bars, water sommeliers, designer brands … as restaurateurs tap in on the booming bottled water market, Ben Canaider reveals what’s actually in Australian bottles and which brands attract dry drinkers.
What’s wet and expensive, yet something that everyone wants? Bottled water. It’s a fashion accessory, a social statement and is as necessary as a mobile phone. No wonder that over the past decade, bottled water sales in this country have—on average—increased by 12 per cent per annum; no wonder that during the past year, Australians drank more than 250 million litres of it, at a cost of about $385 million. And if you reckon that’s a staggering amount, consider the UK. They drink 1.6 billion litres of bottled water a year, turning over £900 million.
Of course, Europeans have always consumed more bottled water than we lucky Australians, but whether this ever-growing bottled water market exists because of fashion and clever marketing, or whether it exists because of poor quality or unsafe locally available tap water, is the interesting bit.
People are now on the move, and they want a convenient and reliable source of healthy drinking water. Purity, or at least a perception of purity, is critical in the whole bottled water equation. Exponents of packaged water point to the dangers and additives found in tap water, even in safe and mostly enjoyable places to drink tap water, such as Melbourne or Sydney.
Our tap water contains few additives by international comparison, but any additive is bad when you’re on the water bandwagon. This is, though, largely for hospitality businesses: bottled water is good because bottled water has margin.
And there’s a key to its on-premise sale—bottled water is a statement. Not only is there margin, but it’s also a neat add-on sale based on the weird trend of the day. Just take a quick look around the bottled water world if you have any doubts.
Paris: water bars
A place such as Le Water Bar de chez Colette sells more than 70 varieties of bottled water from all over the world—from Australian artesian basins to Polynesian volcanos. The bottles carry labels designed by the likes of Philippe Starck.
This is the Prada of bottled water. It’s A$5.50 for 500 ml, and if you don’t have a Penta, then you are in charge of a human body without the right accessory. Penta has even been in the giveaway showbag at the Oscars. Steven Seagal had a crate of it flown to Australia when filming here. When a brand enters into this sort of realm, it doesn’t have to answer any more questions. It’s like asking why champagne is so good. People just laugh at you.
New York: the Ritz-Carlton Hotel’s water sommelier
Water sommelier? Yes. His job is to assist guests with the correct choice of still or sparkling water to accompany the food or the occasion. About 30 waters are on offer.
Italy: the A.D.A.M.
It’s an acronym for (in translation) the Association of Mineral Water Tasters. They conduct mineral water tasting courses in Rimini, and they do it very seriously. Italians currently drink 127 litres of mineral water per capita, and they’re fussy…
However, let’s not get distracted by the celeb status of bottled water brands. There’s a central question—what do you get in the bottle?
Outside the Food Standards Australian New Zealand code, the bottled water market is self-regulating. Therefore labels on the bottled water make mostly vague claims, if they offer any sort of consumer information at all. Some non-sparkling mineralised water list ingredients: water (100 per cent), minerals (calcium chloride, sodium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride). In other words, salts. Other bottles offer a ‘typical analysis’, which may have also included bicarbonates. Nitrates are also sometimes listed. The bottles also tell the keen label reader about the water’s source. Some say “bottled for,” “bottled at source,” or “drawn from various sources.” Others just say “product of Australia.” So what is the drinker of bottled water actually getting?
Bottled water can come from a spring. According to the Australasian Bottled Water Institute, about 80 per cent of Australian bottled water are drawn this way. But the other 20 per cent—well, it’s just cleaned-up tap water or “municipal water,” as the institute prefers to euphemise.
Reverse osmosis, filtration, ozone sterilisation, ultra-violet rays—there are numerous things to do to tap water to make it more neutral. Once that’s happened, however, bottled water manufacturers feel the need to put something back into it, to make it taste like something. Salts. Calcium, nitrate, sodium, magnesium, chloride … so you end up getting tap water with flavour, but without any dank, musty contaminates. However, it does cost about a thousand times more than turning on the tap and running 250 ml of water into a glass. That costs 0.1 cent. The same amount from a bottle might cost $1.
Yet the fiscal ethics of potable water are not the concern of restaurateurs. Restaurateurs need be only interested in two things—trend and neutrality.
Trendy bottled waters that keep on keeping on are such brands as San Pellegrino (rrp $2.50/500 ml). It’s Italian, it’s sparkling and it’s got flavour—or salt. Not anything like a dangerous amount, but it’s not as neutral as some bottled waters, and neutrality seems to be emerging as a key factor in water appreciation.
Voss (rrp $6/375 ml), on the other hand, is Mr Neutral. It comes from an aquifer below southern Norway and claims to be the most neutral water available. With a low mineral count, it tastes soft and rather ‘wet’. There’s no flavour, which is apparently what a water connoisseur wants. Voss sells itself as the ultimate palate-cleanser, and the perfect aqua accompaniment to any wine lover’s dinner. The only problem is the bottle. It looks like it’s an aftershave.
With more bottled water on the market than ever, you’ll easily find a deal and a delivery regime that suits the nature of your business. How far you take the sommelier-like guff that bottled waters are starting to attract, well, that’s up to you. If you can get an eloquent waiter to sell four bottles of $11 water to a table of four, the till is going to thank you!