There is a restaurant in Los Angeles with a ~40-page “Water Menu.”* The menu, which features about 20 different brands of bottled water, is curated by Martin Riese, “America’s only certified water sommelier.” What are we to make of this?
Maybe it suggests nothing more than the success of clever marketing, or that some people just “have more money than good sense,” as a favoured saying in my family goes. But maybe there is more to it. After all, I’m old enough to remember when bottled water was almost unheard of in North America, but it is ubiquitous today. And while most people are well aware of the pernicious effects of bottled water consumption, and there are plenty of campaigns to ban or limit it, US per capita bottled water consumption increased tenfold in the last quarter of the 20th century, and more than doubled again in the first 15 years of this one (Canadian figures are not much different). And most of us think of “water” (singular) as homogeneous and tasteless, but there are something like 3000 different brands of bottled water available globally.
So I spent some time looking at, and thinking about, this water menu. And writing a pretty detailed analysis of it, which is being published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, here. (It is paywalled, but if you can’t access it and want to, let me know.) If you just want the short version, read on.
The article starts with two epigraphs. One is from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who literally wrote the book on taste. In one of his most famous phrases (just yesterday quoted by – ugh – David Brooks): “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” Bourdieu’s work emphasizes the difficulty, if not impossibility, of separating the physical sensation of taste from the social phenomenon of taste as an assertion of cultivation, refinement, or status.
This insight is helpful for understanding both the water menu specifically and the evolution of bottled water more generally. When bottled water was relatively rare, its mere consumption was a mark of distinction. Paying for a bottle of water, rather than contenting yourself with the free tap water that everyone else drinks, was a way to signal an elevated or refined sense of taste. A relatively early (2001) critical analysis of this phenomenon, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, explains: “Drinking expensive bottled water (compared to tap water) is a sign of a rise in the social scale” (p18).
But things are more complicated now. What does bottled water signify when it is itself produced and consumed on a mass basis? When environmental and other critiques of the industry are widespread? When big brands are produced by soft drink conglomerates and are known to be little more than tap water in a plastic container? Since I wrote the article, water sommelier Martin Riese has provided an answer to these questions that is short enough to fit into a single tweet:
“Water from nature and not from a factory.” But how do you tell the difference?
A number of previous studies have shown how bottled water brands rely on images of nature to sell their product (pictures of mountains or lakes, implicitly distinguishing it from municipal water that comes out of a metal tap). A content analysis of the water menu confirms this is one of the more prominent themes. A majority of the brands are described using words like “natural,” “untouched,” “pristine,” or “pure.” Moreover, “purity” is almost always assured by association with human-free wilderness – the water source’s spatial or temporal distance from human influence – than by human regulation.
One interesting finding was that (by about a 2-1 margin) more of the menu discusses how particular waters are produced (where they come from), than what it is like to consume them (how they taste). Even in a restaurant, when portability isn’t a concern, and it is just as “convenient” to order a glass of tap water, the menu suggests that it isn’t necessary to inform readers how a brand of water tastes, in order to cultivate a taste for it.
Another surprising finding was the prevalence of geological references in the brand descriptions. Geological terms or phrases (“ancient volcanic rock” or “layers of ignimbrite” – note also the references to low or high mineral content in Riese’s tweet above) appear in a majority of the brands. Sometimes the implication of this specific geology are clear (“the reason for the inimitable freshness”). But other times it remains unstated. This seems to pose something of a paradox: to sense something’s “naturalness” requires specialized scientific knowledge?
Bourdieu again provides a clue. He insists that “taste” is acquired, through “a labour of identification and decoding” (Distinction, p.100). Using the example of art connoisseurs, he notes how it takes time and work to develop a good sense of taste in art. Since Bourdieu didn’t endorse a distinction between “aesthetic consumption” (e.g. viewing art) and “ordinary consumption” (e.g. drinking water), it would stand to reason that he would agree that being able to taste differences between waters also requires a “labour of identification and decoding.” But here is one difference: for Bourdieu, writing in 20th century France, taste was seen as a marker of “the progress from nature to culture” (Distinction, p.490). In 21st century North America, taste may mark a kind of progress in the other direction: the desire for, ability to sense, and acquisition of experiences of, (non-anthropogenic) “nature.”
In short, it isn’t enough to say that bottled water drinkers are deluded, or that the taste differences between bottled waters are invented or imagined. Maybe they are, but these delusions or imaginings are collective ones, and, like all distinctions and discriminations, they have real social consequences.
If the cultivation of taste requires work, and tastes therefore evolve over time, we might be better to ask what kind of history has been required to produce the taste distinctions that the water menu evokes, and what price has been paid to develop this rich sensory capacity. Which brings me, finally, to the second epigraph for the article about the water menu, from Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
* Or maybe there was such a restaurant. The restaurant’s website no longer has a separate “water menu,” and now only lists 10 different brands of water on its “cocktail menu“. Some evidence that the water menu did exist can be found, for example, here, here, and here.