Words like “terroir” or “mouthfeel” typically get thrown about during a wine tasting, but on Thursday morning in Bangor, such descriptors were pointed at a slightly less exclusive beverage: water.
The Maine Rural Water Association’s 39th annual conference was held Thursday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, and the highlight of the event each year is the taste test to determine which Maine municipality has the best tasting water.
After the three judges carefully sipped the 10 water samples that made it into the finals, they agreed that this year, the water coming from the well at the Town Hall Apartments, a senior living community in LaGrange, was best for non-chemically treated water, and the city of Brewer was the best for chemically treated water.
Judges Bob Nadeau, director of community programs for USDA Rural Development Maine, Michael Abbot, director of the Maine Drinking Water Program, and Rebecca LaBranche, director of A&L Laboratories, an Auburn-based water analysis firm, chose Brewer as the overall winner.
“It really just tasted the best overall,” LaBranche said. “It had a really clean taste. Brewer, even for being a treated system, you could not taste the chlorine. Sometimes water can feel flat, but I think it had some minerals in it that gives it a distinct flavor profile.”
Rodney Butler, superintendent of the Brewer Water Department, said Brewer had won the best water designation once before more than a decade ago, but that this time around, it was special because of the hard work his staff puts in.
“It’s a fun competition between us and other utilities that also have great drinking water,” Butler said. “It shows us that we are doing the right thing. We put a lot of effort into our work and take a lot of pride in it.”
There are 51 public water utilities in Maine, some of which serve multiple communities, whose customers are responsible for about 60 percent of the total water usage in Maine.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that around 13 million households in the U.S. use private wells for their water, about 10 percent of the total households in the U.S. In Maine, however, more than 40 percent of households use private wells, according to the Maine Geological Survey.
“I think we have a great variety of sources of water in Maine. Dug wells, drilled wells, springs, surface water sources. Every town you go to can be vastly different from the next one,” LaBranche said. “I think that’s what makes us special.”
A sample of Brewer’s water will be sent as Maine’s entry into the National Taste Test, to be held in February in Washington, D.C. Last year’s national winner was Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and the year before that, Arcadia, Wisconsin, won.
“Maine has not won at the national level yet — yet, that is,” said Alex Wong, director of capacity development for the Maine Rural Water Association, who acted as emcee for the taste test event. “I think we’ve got some of the best in the country, but of course, I’m biased.”
Wong said the judges look for the five “s’s” as the basis for their scores. There’s to “see,” or look at the clarity, hue and other physical appearance of the water. There’s the “swirl,” to start releasing some aromas. The judges “sniff” to get those aromas out, and then “sip” and “savor.”
“It’s very much like tasting a fine wine,” Wong said. “Especially with non-chemical disinfected water, it’s coming straight out of the ground. There’s a certain terroir for the water. There’s a thumbprint of the ground itself.”
LaBranche said Maine’s diverse geological landscape gives its water its unique flavor — and is also the thing that presents both public and private water suppliers with a safety challenge.
“The thing that people may not realize is that there are lots of things that give water taste — minerals, the different kind of bedrock it passes through, all those different variables,” LaBranche said. “The things that are harmful, however, do not impart a taste. And you won’t know they are there until you test them. All these operations here today, either private or public, are all doing an amazing job making sure their water supply is, first and foremost, safe. We’re very lucky, here in Maine.”