Michael Mascha is the founder and publisher of FineWaters (www.finewaters.com), a Web site portal that is the definitive voice for water connoisseurs and their lifestyle. The site, with its thriving online community, is the leading destination for consumer education and resources in the $9-billion bottled water industry. Mr. Mascha holds a PhD in Anthropology and Communication Science from the University of Vienna.
Q: Mr. Mascha, you’re actually known as a worldwide sommelier for water; that is a quite nice experience, but everybody would really like to know how that became your personal experience or something that made you decide you have a really big interest in water?
M: It’s an interesting question I’m being asked a lot. I have always been interested in food and wine and, about ten years ago, I had to stop drinking wine for health reasons and a big part of the epicurean experience when the wine next to the food was removed from the table and, when that happens, you look at the other bottle that’s still on the table and that’s a bottle of water, so I’ve applied all the epicurean thinking associated with wine for water and, as many people said, I’ve turned water into wine.
Q: Interesting. Can you say, in your career, which has lasted for how many years?
M: I had many, many different careers, but the current one we’re talking about is a little bit more than ten years.
Q: Can you tell us about the numbers we’re interested in? How many waters did you taste?
M: So, worldwide, there are probably around three thousand premium bottled waters, many of them are brands of, you know, commodity waters, but what I would consider premium brands, and I hope I’ve tasted about 10% of it, so about 300, I would guess.
Q: You have also developed special or, let’s say, unique pronouncements of water tasting; for example, you have some criteria there, like virginity and other things. Can you say that it’s something that can be taught to a sommelier?
M: So, I think it’s really important to understand, number one, that water is not water. As soon as we realize that water is not equal to the next water that comes from a different place, you need characteristics to differentiate the waters. So, we’ve developed a set of five characteristics and one of them is mineralization, meaning how many minerals are in the water. Waters taste very differently, as you know from ROY, from very high to no minerals in the water. But the same is also true for what you call balance, meaning the amount of carbon dioxide, CO2, in water. Some bubbles are bigger; some bubbles are smaller. All that gives a different feeling if you have developed a hierarchy for it. Then, orientation deals with the pH content of water. It also has in the out-lived some influence on the case. And then, there is the hardness of the water. And I personally think we should also talk about vintage. Some waters are very young; they’re several days old. Some waters are a thousand years old. This doesn’t improve the taste – the age – but it adds a tremendous story to be told.
Q: Do you have an interest in owning your own water bottling plant one day?
M: (laughs) No, absolutely not. I see how premium brands still struggle in the market and the last thing I want to do is be part of that. So, no, I’m very happy talking to people – you see their passion – and helping them to elevate their category.
Q: What’s your take on global warming impact on the bottled water industry?
M: That’s a difficult question for me to answer, but I think what we can in general say is that there has been, for the last five or six years, a trend that vilified the bottled water industry for producing PET bottles and bottling tap water into the PET bottle and I have to agree with that. I don’t believe that’s a proper use of resources. What people do not understand is that there are two different kinds of bottled water. There’s commodity water, which is tap water or processed water, and then there’s the real natural product, like we have with ROI here, that is very unique. One of those waters, the natural product, it makes perfect sense to bottle it, because there’s no other way of drinking it if you don’t live there. With commodity waters, it makes no sense of putting tap water into the PET bottle and carrying it home from the supermarket. So, with the critics, I agree on the PET bottle, but banning all bottled water is silly, because it’s two different things.
Q: We’ve discussed that water can be a very good companion to food. So, in this aspect, what analogy do you use to describe the relationship between the food and the water?
M: So, it’s … what can be a very good guide and very nice with food. Number one, it helps people who don’t drink alcohol render their choices about drinking boring tap water or Coca-Cola soft drinks. I don’t think soft drinks are good for any kind of food, because they’re way too sweet. They overpower the food. So, you’re left with a boring bottle of tap water. But if you move into the premium category, you have choices with your water. And you can have water that is very low in mineral content that would work very well with sushi or sashimi or you have water like ROI with very high mineralization and some nice bubbles that would work extremely well with game. So, there’s a whole category that can be exploited with sommeliers of matching water with food and I hope we’ll see more of those food and water matching, you know, even here, in your town.
Q: Do you have any favorite combination of food and water?
M: There are many, many combinations. I just discovered yesterday that I really like ROI and dark chocolate and I need to explore that further. That works very well because of the salt content.
Q: This is your first time here in Rogaška Slatina in Slovenia. We would like to know your first impression about Rogaška and Slovenia.
M: So, I love the timing when I came here. We arrived on dry roads yesterday. We wanted to see some snow and this morning I woke up and it was really snowy outside. Congratulations on your timing. I have driven through the area a couple of times. It’s really, really beautiful. I personally think it’s a small country, but one of the most beautiful ones in Europe because of the smallness and the variation of geography and topography.
Q: What do you think about ROI water?
M: Coming from a European background, enjoying minerals in the water, I really enjoy it. And it’s something very unique and very special. Once you had ROI and you drink it again, you’ll remember it. It’s not like many other waters that are sometimes hard to distinguish. This one has a lot of character.
Q: An interesting point we always talk about is that ROI was frequently enjoyed by kings and queens in the past. Do you think that could influence consumers nowadays or that it’s some kind of a privilege to have ROI as a ROITSCHOCRENE for the name?
M: I think it’s a really good marketing opportunity and there was a reason so many people enjoyed the water in the past, you know, for health reasons. And we also have to keep in mind that 200 years ago the medical sciences were not quite what they are right now. But I still think this whole concept of tradition and the European tradition of going to a spa and enjoyoing the waters; those kinds of concepts can really help people today, because they get a nice relaxing time, and if they drink more water, and especially mineral water, it’s good for them. But it also allows them, maybe, to enjoy the alcohol and the wine more because of the preventive curative features of ROI.
Q: There is a legend of ROI water. You’ve probably heard about it. It’s called the legend of PEGASUS. Do you think that the legend can actually have some kind of a strong meaning to the product ROI?
M: I think everything that helps to establish pedigree, a sense of history, in a sense that what has been used for a long time has been around for long, really helps with it. So, I wouldn’t use it as the only way to market water, but as a small tool in a larger toolkit of marketing the water. I definitely think it can help. But I would also put a lot of emphasis on the 18th and 19th century – you know, the kings and the Austrian, the Hapsburgs coming here, I think you have a train station here, so that they could go with the train. So, all those kind of things are also very helpful, because people look back to this time as the good old times, even though they might not have been as good.
Q: You have tasted ROI. How would you describe its taste?
M: All I need is one word to describe the taste. It’s very unique. If you have it, you will remember it. And I would also describe it as an acquired taste. I think, for Europeans, it’s easier, because it’s just a step up from other waters that already have high mineralization. For some people who are not used to mineral water, it’s going to be a little bit of a challenge to acquire them with the taste, because of the strong mineral content. But again, this is where the story comes in; this is where the pedigree comes in and this is where the food and water perry comes in, because I personally think it’s less challenging if you consume the water for the first time with food, because, suddenly, it works, right, it’s not a standalone peak that you drink and say ‘Oh, my God. What is this?’ We ate smoked tuna last night. I would love people for the first time in their lives to experience it with food. A little bit of the tuna, a little bit of the water, and it was wow; this was a nice experience. Or with the chocolate or something.
Q: That’s very interesting. Well, we are talking about the world’s most magnesium-rich water and here we have other health aspects. Do you think drinking ROI could be something that you would include in your daily routine?
M: I think so. I think magnesium is one of the overlooked minerals that we need for our body and I’m not a medical expert, but I think some deficiency that you have or not have enough magnesium, which is especially important for your heart health. So, I think that’s an aspect that could really be exploited with ROI, the health aspect. I just caution you to balance very nicely the epicurean aspect and the health aspect. So it doesn’t tip to one side and you suddenly end up in a pharmacy as a medical thing. Because the last thing you want to do at your table is drink medicine. So, it needs to be nicely balanced as wellness, ‘it’s good for you’, but avoid tipping too much on the side of health. But, it’s a very important aspect.
Q: According to your information and enthusiasm about this water, can we expect ROI to be in your program to present the water around the world?
M: I would love to have ROI there, because I could scare so many people (laughs).
Q: (laughs) With water?
M: I’m doing water tastings and I need something to open the presentation that gives me the attention of the people and if you serve them regular water, that’s like, the thing I know, this is what water tastes like. So, I usually, I would love to open with ROI and have them pay attention and then start contrasting it and then show the landscape of different waters. So, yes, ROI would be perfect.
Q: Well, I must say that regarding that, I do hope that we’ll have the pleasure to have you here in Rogaška Slatina. Maybe we can arrange some event together in relation to the waters? Perhaps you have any ideas?
M: I would love to. You know, you have a very good restaurant here. I would love to, maybe, work with the chef, develop a five-course menu, with a little bit of a health aspect, but also epicurean curiosity, and people would subject themselves to enjoy the food and water and, maybe, not so much wine, and see if that works for them as well.
Q: Perfect. Thank you very much and warmly welcome in Rogaška.
M: Thank you.