courtesy of Martin Riese
The world’s premier water sommelier talks to ICONIC LIFE about his career, sustainability and advocating for the universal human right to clean water.
From a young age, Martin Riese was fascinated by water. He recalls going on vacation with his family when he was around five years old, and the first thing he did wherever they went was to drink tap water and see how it tasted. He recognized that water tasted differently wherever they were in Europe, and he wanted to try it all.
“It was fascinating that everybody called it water, but there were no different words for it,” he remembers thinking. After his childhood obsession wore off, he didn’t think as much about water until 2005.
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Riese’s ah-ha moment came when he was running a Michelin-starred restaurant in Berlin. A guest called him over and asked why they only had one brand of water on the menu, but they had more than a thousand different wines. This guest didn’t like the taste of the particular brand of water that the restaurant served, and he wanted to know what Riese could offer him.
“I looked at him, and it was almost like in Hollywood movies when you’re surprised, then suddenly you have an idea and there’s a light behind you, like in a cartoon,” Martin Riese says.
Restaurants had extensive wine programs, immense bars with every imaginable spirit, and robust cocktail programs, but water was overlooked. “When it comes to water, our most important and most essential beverage on this planet, it’s completely neglected.
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We don’t even think about it,” he says. He started to source different waters, tasted them, and created a water menu for the restaurant.
And that was the start of Riese’s journey to becoming a famous water sommelier. The sommelier definition as you know meaning a wine steward, Riese is a leading water sommelier meaning he is the expert, or water connoisseur if you will.
After that moment of epiphany and years of study, he wrote a book in German, The World of Water, profiling different waters and becoming a noted water expert in Germany. In 2010, he was certified as a Mineral Water Sommelier by the German Mineral Water Trade Association. Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, being a water sommelier is a real thing. Yes, water tastes differently depending on the source and mineral content. It has terroir, just like wine. And yes, you should care about the water you drink.
“It’s not a made-up career. I have a degree on this,” he says. His knowledge is considered extraordinary, which qualified him for the so-called “Einstein Visa”—the 0-1 Visa reserved for people who are highly acclaimed in their industry—to move to the US. Here, his star quickly rose.
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Educating the public about his calling as a water connoisseur.
Courtesy of Martin Riese
Riese created a water menu at a restaurant in Los Angeles, then began speaking about water on top programs including “Good Morning America,” “Conan” and “Bill Nye Saves the World,” as well as being interviewed by countless top publications as the world’s premiere water sommelier. Educating the public about water is his calling.
When it comes to bottled water, in the US we drink mostly spring water and filtered tap water. In Europe, mineral water is much more common. Mineral water comes from a naturally occurring source and has been revered for its therapeutic benefits for centuries. The phrase “taking the waters” comes from trips people would take to historic bath towns with rich mineral water, like the aptly named Bath in England or Baden-Baden in Germany.
These spa towns were established during the Roman Empire and in the 16th Century, spa culture was rediscovered. The wealthy would flock to these waters for their therapeutic benefits. Riese says, “Doctors recommended you go to the spa towns and treat yourself with these mineral waters that were filled with healing minerals dissolved by Mother Nature. It’s kind of like medication.” Canny entrepreneurs bottled these healing mineral waters so people could reap the benefits at home, creating the first bottled waters.
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Martin Riese says that Europeans have always known that water should not be “pure.” It needs to have dissolved minerals in it, like magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium. A lot of the bottled water sold in the US is highly processed, essentially just boiled and bottled tap water. “I don’t understand the concept,” he says. “Why should I buy bottled water in a grocery store when the source is right here?” referring to companies that bottle water from municipal water sources and repackage it as a premium product.
That’s not to say he doesn’t believe people should drink tap water. He recommends installing a water filter, which doesn’t need to be expensive but does need to filter out chlorine and drinking tap water over any bottled purified water. Surprisingly, most of the major water brands in the US are purified tap water, and some are even re-mineralized after being purified.
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Courtesy of Martin Riese
Riese notes that the US doesn’t have as many mineral waters as Europe, and they can be difficult to find. Mountain Valley Spring Water, Fiji Natural Artesian Water, Evian, Voss, Icelandic Glacial, Acqua Panna and Perrier are spring and mineral waters that are widely available in the US.
As a water sommelier, when selecting bottled water, Riese recommends you opt for spring or mineral waters that are sustainably sourced. If you don’t like the taste of a certain water, it’s likely due to the mineral content, so try others until you find one that suits your taste.
It’s also important to consider the type of food you are eating. If you’re eating something delicate, like sushi or a lightly flavored dish, you’ll want lighter water with fewer dissolved minerals, or it will “wash out that sushi. The sushi will have barely any taste.” More flavorful dishes can stand up to water with higher mineral content.
It’s exactly like choosing wine pairings, except there are fewer options available.
For Martin Riese, his career is not just about how water tastes and finding the perfect bottle to accompany your Michelin-starred cuisine. He believes that by creating water menus, he can encourage people to think about water in a different way—as a precious resource.
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“The bigger picture is for me to bring awareness to water because 780 million people on this planet do not have access to clean and safe drinking water,” he says, noting that in the US, we take water for granted until there is a crisis, and it’s not available.
“It’s mind-blowing to me that [people are] allowed to wash their cars on the streets. In Germany, it’s been forbidden by law for 20 years. Not because we don’t have enough water in Germany—we have tons of water—but because all of the chemicals that they’re washing with should not go in the regular draining system. It needs to be treated first,” he says.
Riese recommends everyone take a look at their water consumption and focus on reducing waste.
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Riese recommends everyone take a look at their water consumption and focus on reducing waste. Can you turn off the tap when brushing your teeth? Take a shower instead of a bath, because it uses less water? Where are you wasting water?
With climate change, images of the devastating forces of water are all around us: beaches washing away, historic floods and epic droughts. The well-known water sommelier is using his platform as a call to action.
“We need to connect together, learn from other cultures, and make sure we’re protecting Mother Nature. That’s the most important thing for me.” He created the Fine Water Academy to educate people about water. Riese offers classes including Fine Water 101 for beginners as well as professional-level certifications.