The 28th-Annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Festival is set for February 22-25 at The Country Inn of Berkeley Springs, in the center of town. At this point, most natives in the Panhandle are well aware of the jovial, notably informative event. But what folks might not realize is how far and wide the Festival has spread in the last near-30 years.
In fact, once preliminary judging (set for Thursday, February 22) and the ever-popular Friday Seminar (February 23) has been checked off the list, the Final Tastings and Awards Reception (Saturday, February 24) will be streamed to a live audience around the world—literally, a global audience will tune into this event.
(It should be noted: the Saturday evening tasting and reception, billed as black tie/bib overalls optional, is open to the public.)
As one might imagine, 28 years in, the Festival brings a steady crowd to Berkeley Springs all week long. Hotels and restaurants are filled, and shops certainly enjoy the economic boost during the cold months. But this event is no gimmick—in fact, what started out in 1991 as a somewhat whimsical notion to bring people into town during the slow season, has grown and grown, and now enjoys exclusive status as the world’s largest, most renowned, most credible, and longest-running water tasting festival. To that end, the event has been featured on National Public Radio, BBC, MSNBC, FOX News Network, CNN, USA Today, and in Beverage Industry Magazine.
“The first year, they got some people from the region to submit some water, and then went to the store and got some water, and basically had a festival,” explained Jill Klein Rone, who produces the event for Travel Berkeley Springs, a non-profit representing the Berkeley Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Over the years, it has grown to six categories—and over a hundred entries per year from over forty countries and all but four U.S. states.”
Despite humble beginnings and spotty numbers in the initial years, the Festival began to hit its stride in the mid-nineties, when, by a stroke of fate, a water from Kent, Ohio, won.
“It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Kent State shootings , and winning this water festival was the first time in a long time anything much worth celebrating had happened in Kent,” Klein Rone pointed out. “It actually made The Tonight Show—they talked about it, and even sent a crew to Kent to do a water tasting with the mayor. That really put us on the stage—people started paying attention. Entry submissions grew every year after that—from farther and farther out. And then once technology caught up in the early two-thousands, we really started to go global.”
The digital age has certainly streamlined and modernized the event, Klein Rone admitted. “We’re able to immediately post updates, information, results, etc., online and through emails/texts/social media now—when it used to take literally hours, or overnight, to get the information to the right people around the country.”
And, as mentioned, two years ago—though Berkeley Springs isn’t known as a WiFi hotbed—the Festival started livestreaming the Saturday reception and awards ceremony. “We have people all over the world watching,” said Klein Rone. “We used to go to Sunday brunch as a group, many of us, and our phones would be ringing nonstop; then, suddenly one year, they just stopped ringing. It was because our technology channels were finally doing the job. People didn’t have to call us anymore.”
Responding to the Market
The Festival will add a new category to its listing this year, bringing the total to six: Municipal (tap), Bottle Non-Carbonated, Bottled Sparkling (Carbonated), Purified, Package Design (people’s choice), and this year, Sparkling Flavored Essence.
“Over the years, it’s not just the event that has evolved, but the water industry has changed,” noted Klein Rone. “It grew, and we grew with it—largely in response to various market changes. Which is why we added package design, and then purified water. This year, it’s sparkling water with a flavored essence—nothing added, just an essence. Apparently, it’s the big new thing; people are switching to it from soda.”
An additional highlight is the Friday Seminar, which has come to distinguish the Festival as more than just a tasting. “It’s an opportunity to highlight water overall, put it in the news, and get people to pay attention to the fact that water is our most precious natural resource—we can’t live without it,” Klein Rone stressed. “So, the seminar encapsulates this—gives us an opportunity to educate—again, because of the reputation we’ve built.”
While the Festival will get submissions from the big names on grocery store shelves, participants vary in size and scope. But as long as they have a UPC symbol on their label—which proves they’re the real thing—they have as good a chance of winning as Nestle.
“We’ve had mason jars show up, which will cause some chuckles—and one year, an owner came all the way from New Zealand,” said Klein Rone. “Sadly, his water got held up in Customs. We felt so bad for him.”
Most entries are mailed in from around the country and the world, but plenty of people still show up to Berkeley Springs during Festival week. “We’ll see upwards of two hundred people in the main room on Saturday night,” Klien Rone added—who will typically hand deliver awards to the winners if arrangements can be made … a perk that has found her in Greece two years running.
“We love to do it, and take Greece for example: the country is hurting economically. To have this business in this particular town, expanding and employing people and reaching out all over the world—selling Greek water—and then they win an award here … it only magnifies what they’re doing. And that happens with winners all over the U.S. and the world. We’ve been told by winners that the Monday after the event, their phones are ringing off the hook. It opens doors for them.”
Ultimately, the true value of the Festival for Berkeley Springs comes by way of publicity, noted Klein Rone. “The visibility we get across the nation and the world almost can’t be measured from a marketing standpoint. The PR value is enormous—hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth, maybe more—who knows.
“You couldn’t pay for the amount of publicity it generates. And that brings people to town. I’m sure someone could quantify it, and the numbers would be big, with a lot of zeros—which generates a lot of economic development. All told, it truly is a case of everybody wins.”By Jillian Williams