Rainwater is being served, rainwater that has traveled 16,000 kilometers (9,950 miles) from Tasmania to be sipped by a dozen guests sitting in club chairs in a timber-framed house in a Hamburg suburb. In front of the guests stands a man who is on the short side, wearing a suit and glasses. Jerk Martin Riese, 34, is the maître d' at the Michelin-starred First Floor restaurant in Berlin. There, he created a water menu with 40 different selections -- something for the bored diner to peruse if their partner is monopolizing the wine list.
Riese, who has the unusual job of water sommelier, will soon be moving to Los Angeles. But before he goes, he is attempting to leave behind a little bit of his expertise in the Hamburg cocktail bar Redroom.
A small group has assembled in the bar, including knowledgeable laypeople, business representatives, members of the trade press and restaurateurs. They have just been warming up for the occasion by tasting a particular variety of gourmet spring water, whose label claims that it has been "bio-energetically charged." More about that later.
The water tasting begins. First there is Norwegian spring water. It tastes soft. Then Tasmanian rainwater. It also tastes soft.
"Buttery," says one of the guests. "Almost oily," adds the sommelier.
Water in its Endless Variations
These are confusing times for the foodie. There used to be just cooking oil. Then people began to distinguish between olive oil and other oils. Then came extra virgin olive oil. Now there is extra virgin olive oil from Liguria, Crete and the Luberon.
Once water came in just two varieties: with or without carbonation. Now there is water from Fiji, Patagonia or South Africa. There is even water from Tennessee sold in bottles encrusted with Swarovski crystals. It costs €65 ($92) a bottle in the First Floor restaurant. Riese says it is highly prized by eastern Europeans.
He reaches for a bottle of water from northern Germany. It tastes fizzy.
Spanish water. It tastes fizzy with a hint of saltiness.
Riese sips and swirls his water as others do with their wine; it's not entirely necessary, but it certainly can be done. Riese says that he finds it perfectly fine to drink tap water, but "when someone wants to go all out and spend €1000 in one evening, then that makes me quite happy."
Importing to the Exporters
Riese stands for distinction. He advises the type of person who finds it important to know which type of water would go well with an acidic Riesling -- in this case still water would be best -- whereas an old, tired Bordeaux requires something with a bit more fizz. He is also used to stifling any qualms people might have about the potentially decadent nature of quaffing exotic luxury water.
"How would we Germans feel as exporters," he says, "if everyone around the world only consumed local products?" Besides, he says, it's not as if scallops live in Germany's Elbe or Spree rivers.
It is Riese's mission to imbue water with meaning as a product. It is the price, the bottle design, and above all the story behind the product that make this possible.
He weaves a tale about the Tasmanian rainwater that the guests sampled earlier, which fell from the sky and never once touched the ground. Tasmania is one of the most remote locations in the world, making its rainwater one of the purest and cleanest on Earth, Riese claims. When a Saudi Arabian delegation dined recently at Berlin's City Hall, it was he who selected the accompanying water. The Saudis were quite enthusiastic, but Riese says that it was Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who was the most thrilled. After tasting the water he flung his arms out and cried, "Ah! Berlin!"
All of the stories that Riese tells are within the realm of possibilities and logical to some extent. But then another man steps foward. It was this man who invited Riese to come and present his water at this event in Hamburg, and, as this new man begins to speak, the tone at the gathering starts to shift.
His name is Markus Stegmaier, and he is the CEO of a company called Q-Aqua. He asserts that water has "memory" and that the memory of the water that he sells is loaded with what he calls bio-energetic vibrations. "Information" is gathered from healing crystals, gemstones and medicinal herbs and is captured by something -- he won't say what exactly, or how it works. The captured frequencies are then transferred into the water, he explains, adding that the water is also cleansed of negativity and then has its positivity enhanced. Lavender, myrrh, jade, smoky quartz and many other essences make for water that is calming, while club moss, ginseng, malachite and other things create vitalizing water.
How does all of this work? Does it all go into one big tank?
No, Stegmaier answers. "These vibrations all pass through the bottle, through the glass," he says. Some people in the audience begin to mutter quietly when they hear this, but Stegmaier is not deterred. "It's just like what happens with a cell phone -- the radiation passes through the walls," he says. "After all, you can make calls in closed rooms."
Canine Water Tasting
People like stories, and Riese now tells the story of a regular customer, a businessman, and how he observed the businessman setting both his and his guest's water glasses on aluminum foil. Apparently the idea was to draw the vibrations in the room from the air down into the water.
Riese does not laugh as he tells the story. Here the audience has the opportunity to consider which is more rational: drinking Tasmanian rainwater shipped 16,000 kilometers across the world or drinking German spring water that has been infused with some sort of hocus-pocus. Stegmaier argues that rationality can sometimes get in the way.
His marketing manager then tells a personal story about her family, her children, her dog and the water they drink. One day, she decided to test whether her dog could tell the difference between normal and energized water, so she filled two identical water bowls with each type.
Now, she says, he refuses to lap up anything other than energized water from his dish.