How to win a taste test

By the end of 2015, about 4,000 samples of water will have been tasted from over 140 water supply schemes in a total of 32 qldwater tasting events. That’s a lot of trips to the toilet!

So why have a taste test, water tastes like water?

Queensland has over 350 public water supply “schemes” spread across the state. We are both blessed and cursed with diversity in water quality with some Great Artesian Basin source waters requiring little or no treatment to meet Australian Drinking Water Guideline standards, while others from highly impacted catchments need a lot of work.
The idea for a taste test came from a casual conversation with some well-travelled qldwater members around the worst water they had ever tasted. What followed was a trial in 2011 in Western Queensland which fuelled parochial and competitive fires. We had lots of media interest at the novelty, and believe it has positively influenced perceptions of Queensland’s urban water industry.

In 2012, Orica (now Ixom) came on board to sponsor a State event and in 2015, the idea has been picked up by WIOA which is now running events in NSW, Victoria, SA, and Tasmania and of course the state of origin between NSW and Qld supplies.

While it is impossible to get complete state-wide coverage each year simply because of the difficulty of getting samples to some of the events, some Councils go to great lengths to get the water delivered. In a typical year we will get over 30 samples or entries from half the total number of qldwater members.

We started with tasting panels, but got sick of the format after a couple of years when no new jokes emerged, so a 2015 taste test typically looks like this:

  • Samples arriving in the morning
  • Representatives from each service provider describe the source water and treatment process in glowing terms along with some appropriate sledging prior to the tasting
  • Tasting and scoring of the water samples over lunch and the winner announced at afternoon tea

So how do you win a taste test?

So your water meets the ADWG but still has fundamental taste problems. What do you do? Our early theories around what created taste preferences suggested that childhood influences were a big factor – fond memories of drinking from a hose, or rainwater tank. While there may be an element of truth in this, it’s not something you can easily address when you have a large group of potential tasters to deal with, so here are a few things to try:

  1. If you are a council like Richmond Shire, you could invest in new best-practice treatment processes to develop a treatment solution to deal with sulphide, iron and manganese. Richmond’s customer focus is clear – the solution helps council promote its growing tourism industry and address long-standing ratepayer concerns and we hope their win helps with their customer engagement.
  2. You could keep it cheap and simple and let the water stand for 24 hours. This is proven to remove some, if not all odour from disinfection chemicals, and sulphites where they are an issue. Being as diplomatic as possible – I can recall a number of samples from GAB schemes that betrayed a hint of their source but didn’t taste a lot like my memory of the water straight out of the tap…
  3. Store it refrigerated in a thoroughly cleaned glass container but make sure it is at room temperature for tasting. This is from experts and we can guarantee there will be arguments. We have heard every theory on how best to transport samples, and recall one good natured accusation of us tampering with a sample when it had clearly been tainted by a plastic container.
  4. If you are an unnamed but endearingly parochial Council in the Central West you suggest most strongly to qldwater that you hold an event in the major town for a week but only conduct the taste test at the end so people “have time to get used to the water.”

Then of course there is the more recent phenomenon of event stacking.

Event stacking

Alternative waters have been trialled at various times just to see how they would go against the best from the tap. In one test, a distilled water sample won a regional final by a clear margin. In another it performed miserably. Every time bottled water has been included in a test, it has scored roughly in the middle of the pack. People will pay big money for this stuff which is clearly wasted. So what is the most significant factor influencing taste?

After a couple of years running with the taste tests where conference delegates did the testing, we started observing a trend. We had a good look at the results from six regional events in 2014. The hosts won the taste test in two of the six locations, however where the winners had provided a relatively high number of delegates to the conference, the number increased to a clear three of six, and arguably four of six. Four regional tests into 2015 and the results are very similar. People seem to like, or at least vote for, what they are most familiar with.

Conversely, the method used at big events like the taste grand finals each year and the WIOA Water of Origin event is unlikely to demonstrate this bias. At the end of the day we could have over 100 tasters with rarely more than a few who are from the water’s “home turf.” Of course, if you believe our rhetoric to the conference delegates before the first origin event at WIOA Gold Coast, there is another possibility. You have to imagine the “Roy and HG” origin announcer – “it is your duty to not necessarily pick what you think tastes the best, but what tastes like Queensland.”
In short, we can’t claim a robust scientific method but believe there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest sending as many people as you can to the event (especially qldwater regional events) is the most crucial success factor.

Conclusion

The most successful schemes in the history of the taste test include:

  • Richmond – regional, state and origin wins
  • Bundaberg (Lover’s Walk) – two regional and one origin win
  • Rockhampton (Glenmore) – two regional finals and two state-wide runners up

They differ significantly in source water quality and treatment processes and arguably reflect extremes. While the Bundaberg scheme is blessed with high quality source water which requires a simple and unique process, Rockhampton must be carefully treated due to variable seasonal source water quality. As detailed above, Richmond’s Great Artesian Basin source water has major issues with both aesthetics and odour.

We can’t be sure whether the competition has driven any entrants to try to improve the taste of their water, but it is clear that many have gained professional pride and positive customer reactions from a strong result. We haven’t precisely mapped out the future of the competition but as you can see, are prepared to give different ideas a go. Drop us a line if you have a good one.

Having tasted all except a few of the samples across the five years (and picking up those we’ve missed through other trips as part of the job), at the end of the day, there seem to be a lot of subtle factors influencing taste. Many champions have been beaten thanks to minor changes in treatment or seasonal source issues, and probably thanks to a few of the strategies above.

However, when it comes to the crunch and you have 100 people at a major conference deciding on six of the best samples in the state, regrettably there is little you can do to beat the best…

By | 2017-04-26T11:23:42+00:00 September 2nd, 2015|water taste test|