The first thing Ganesh Iyer does after saying hello is pour out a glass of water for me. As India’s first water sommelier, it seems only natural that we meet at a restaurant and drink water. Even as I take a sip, there is something that stands out immediately—a subtle aftertaste I cannot pin down. “Any natural mineral water is an acquired taste because it is in its raw form, without any softeners to make it more palatable," says Iyer.

“You can look at water through so many perspectives—taste, hygiene, sanitation, wellness, health and so on—that one can talk about it forever," says Iyer, and we settle on addressing questions on taste, classification and storage.

Iyer, who has been in the water business for 20 years, is currently director, operations, India and Indian subcontinent, of VEEN, a Finnish beverage brand which focuses on natural mineral bottled waters. This is the seventh water brand he has helped launch in India, the others including Evian and Perrier. And for him the challenge remains explaining water as a base category. “One has to explain what is packaged drinking water vis-à-vis natural mineral water," he says.

Looking to augment his experience and knowledge, he made his way to Doemens Academy, Germany in 2018, where he learnt about the widely varying water types around the world and their characteristics and “flavour".

One aspect of this comes from total dissolved solids, or TDS, which includes both inorganic salts as well as a small amount of organic matter. “When you are eating Indian food, it is important to have water with a good amount of TDS because the high amount of minerals in the water will blend seamlessly with what you are eating. The same high TDS water will not make sense when you are eating a salad.

“In a wine-tasting session, one has to trace notes of vanilla or berries and these are flavours you can identify. In a water-tasting session, we need to identify things like sulphates, and this is not so recognizable," says Iyer. The aroma cues for minerals can be unpleasant, for they include the equivalents of a rotten egg or a drain. So water tasting is tricky and not always pleasant.

TDS levels of natural mineral waters are what give it taste and set it apart from packaged drinking water. According to Iyer, anyone can bottle water. Water is drilled out of the ground via borewells and put through a reverse osmosis process to clear the impurities. The natural minerals lost in this process are reintroduced artificially and this water is packaged in plastic bottles and sold in the market.

“For natural mineral water, on the other hand, one needs to find a source," he says, adding that India has 20-21 natural mineral water sources. Hydrogeology reports reveal the nature and quality of the subsurface water and the feasibility of putting up a factory where the water can be bottled at source. These are completely untreated waters which have no contact with atmospheric air or any kind of pollution. Union government regulations dictate that only water which has a TDS level of more than 150 can be termed natural mineral water.

A very important aspect of natural mineral water is bottling. Flint glass bottles are ideal for storing all kinds of water. “The plastic bottle used in most packaged water is the worst thing because we have no legislation in India on good and bad plastics. And especially since we are in a tropical country, bad-quality plastic is susceptible to heat and leaches out harmful chemicals," says Iyer.

He agrees, though, that while natural mineral water might be great, it is not an affordable option in a country where the resource is scarce. “For simple hydration, drink ordinary tap water that is boiled," says Iyer. Even this water connoisseur drinks boiled water stored in an earthen pot.

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