The Terroir of Tap
Dining at local restaurants is the usual strategy for exploring regional flavors, but it turns out that there’s another way to get a real taste for a place: turn on the tap. We know that tap water tastes different in different parts of the U.S., but what many of us don’t know is that the flavor variations are partly a reflection of local geology. And according to one Cleveland chef, the distinct make-up of regional waters doesn’t just impact the taste of the water we drink; it also plays an important role in shaping the taste of the local dishes themselves.
“In many, many recipes, water is a key ingredient and many times it might be 90 percent of the recipe, so it becomes more important,” says Steve Schimoler, owner and chef at CROP Bistro, a hip eatery in the Ohio City neighborhood. “As a chef, I go out of my way to procure the best ingredients for our menu. How could you not want the best water?”
Despite the earthy connotation of the name CROP, it actually stands for something a bit more technological: “Custom Restaurant Operation Platform.” Schimoler, a former food scientist for industry titans like Nestle, opened CROP as a place to develop recipes that he tests on diners—and he uses the results to advise large restaurant chains. This year he’s turned his attention to taste-testing tap water.
“Whether it’s myth or legend, everyone says New York bagel dough and pizza dough is so good because of the New York City water," says Schimoler.
“Whether it’s myth or legend, everyone says New York bagel dough and pizza dough is so good because of the New York City water,” says Schimoler, a native New Yorker who grew up on the city’s iconic foods. So Schimoler put the myth to the test. He made three pizza doughs – one with Cleveland tap, one with New York tap, and one with Reverse Osmosis water (a heavily filtered water, which Schimoler calls “pure H20”) – and presented them to his customers without identifying them. He left it up to his customers to decide which water he should use in his pizza dough.
Schimoler refers to the variation in tap water flavor – the subtle difference between Cleveland tap and New York tap – with a rather high-brow culinary term: “You hear the word ‘terroir’ in wine and produce, where those ingredients are picking up the limey-ness, or the slate-ness, or whatever the environmental impact is within a region.” Schimoler believes water can have a slight, but powerful impact – one that can make or break the overall meal he serves.
According to Deirdre Mueller of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), this “terroir” of tap is the result of a combination of factors, such as whether the source is surface water (e.g. a lake or river), or ground water (e.g. a deep aquifer). “If the water comes from an aquifer, it’s probably been deep underground for perhaps thousands of years and it’s buried in rock, so it could be more mineral-y. A lot of bottled water companies use aquifer water and say that it tastes fresher,” she says. That said, over the last few years, all of the winners of the AWWA’s annual Tap Water Taste Tests have been sourced from surface water.
Another factor affecting the taste of tap is a region’s location within a watershed. Cities that are positioned near the top of a watershed, like Denver, receive water straight from the snowpack of surrounding mountains. Being close to the source, this water does not require many disinfectants to make it potable. However, like all public drinking water in the U.S., it is treated and tested to limit the amount of certain naturally-occurring minerals and microorganisms, along with other chemicals added by the water departments (as mandated by the EPA).
As water from the watershed heads downstream, its flavor often changes. “By the time water gets to cities in Southern California, for instance, it’s probably been through a handful of treatment processes in cities upstream,” says Mueller. The natural organic flavor in the water evolves into “more of a chemical taste.”
Some regions require more chemical additives disinfectants than others to meet the EPA’s guidelines. The amount needed depends on environmental factors (like pollution levels) and regional health directives . In Cleveland, where Chef Schimoler’s kitchen lab is, that list includes fluoride, mandated by the state of Ohio to prevent cavities; chlorine, to kill bacteria; and orthophosphate, to help control lead corrosion in pipes.
“Regarding the taste, chlorine is one of the things that, I think, many people have a sensitivity to,” says Alex Margevicius, Interim Commissioner of Cleveland Water. The EPA allows up to 4 milligrams of chlorine per liter. Cleveland Water, which sources its water from intake pipes 3-5 miles offshore in Lake Erie, currently adds 1 ½ milligrams per liter, to strike a balance between taste and safety. “Customers, in general, are more demanding than they were 20 years ago.” says Margevicius.
They’re more demanding because tap water has had some fierce competition: over 9 billion gallons of bottled water are sold in the U.S. every year. But simply because something costs more, doesn’t mean it’s a better product. When Fiji Water released an ad poking fun at Cleveland’s historic water troubles by proclaiming “The Label Says Fiji Because It’s Not Bottled in Cleveland,” Cleveland Water shot back. “We kind of took offense to that,” says Cleveland Water Quality Manager Maggie Rodgers, who went on to test Fiji Water side-by-side with Cleveland tap, and other bottled water brands. “Low and behold, Fiji Water came back with arsenic at higher levels than our water or the other national brands.”
Health concerns aside, when it comes down to what we prefer to eat and drink, it’s all about taste. Back in his kitchen laboratory, Chef Steve Schimoler assesses the results of his own tests: “Surprisingly, the pizza dough made with New York tap water didn’t win, although, it’s purported to be the best,” he says. The consumers chose the pizza made with the heavily-filtered reverse osmosis water. “They were tasting what they thought they should taste: says Schimoler, “the yeast, the sweetness of the dough, the browning.”
Does this mean that filtered water tastes better than tap? Not necessarily. Schimoler acknowledges that when it comes to water, many factors can impact people’s taste preference – even marketing, “Now, if we labeled it New York [pizza], I bet a lot of people would pick New York just because they knew it was New York. So, it’s a little subjective.”