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Would you pay $20 for a bottle of water?

Akiko Fujita

When Martin Riese first introduced his 46-page water menu at Ray’s and Stark Bar in Los Angeles two years ago, he didn’t exactly get a rousing reception.

The 38 year-old German citizen had already been certified by the German Water Trade Association back home, but that designation didn’t hold much weight among skeptical Americans, who weren’t used to shelling out $20 a bottle for water.

“Some of them said ‘Only in LA’ and their eyes were rolling and everything,” Riese says. 

Two years later, Riese may be having the last laugh. Business at the bar has jumped 500% and his water menu has expanded to two other locations, including the Hollywood Bowl. His $50 per person water tasting class has sold out each session since it began this year.

“[Customers] are going into the water menu, looking for different springs, saying ‘I like this, this has so much sodium, this has so much magnesium,’” he says. “You have so many interested Americans who are so amazed and concerned about what they are doing to their body.”

Riese considers that a personal victory. A native of Aventoft, Germany, Riese’s fascination with water began when he was just 4 years old, scoping out different springs during family trips.

“I realized that water tasted differently in every single city,” he said. “This was the most interesting thing for me when I was on vacation.”

That curiosity led to a fulltime obsession with water. Riese created his first water menu at the First Floor restaurant in Berlin, and went on to write the book “The World of Water” in 2008. A few years later, the Patina Restaurant Group, which owns Ray’s and Stark Bar, recruited Riese to come to the U.S.

It took him nearly 2 years to create the water menu.

“I didn’t know that in America it’s very difficult to get the spring water to have on my water menu,” Rises said. “Most of the water you find on your grocery store shelves is purified water, which means it’s actually nothing more than tap water."

Riese’s extensive menu features spring water from Fiji to Denmark. The most expensive water, priced at $20 for a 750 ml bottle, comes from a 15,000 year-old Canadian glacier. Riese says demand for Berg Water has been so high it is temporarily out of stock.

Water served at Ray’s is classified into one of four different palettes: sweet, salty, smooth and complex. The menu lists the amount of total dissolved solids, or mineral content, in each liquid. Total dissolved solids create the flavor of the water, says Riese.

“When you have a higher magnesium for example, it gets a little bitter,” he said. “Calcium is slightly bitter and salty.”

And Riese pairs that sweet or salty water with different cheeses or cured meats to bring out the flavor, just like wine. For example, he says, Danish water Iskilde, which has “earthy notes,” pairs well with mushrooms or grilled cheese. On the other hand, the saltiness of Spanish water Vichy Catalan is a perfect match for salami.

Riese used his extensive palette to craft his own water, the Beverly Hills 9OH2O, a cocktail of spring water from Northern California, infused with potassium, magnesium and calcium.

While customers at Ray’s and Stark Bar represent a tiny fraction of the larger bottled water market, Riese’s success comes as American consumers increasingly look to replace high calorie soft drinks with healthier alternatives. U.S. consumers spent $18.8 billion on bottled water last year alone, according to Euromonitor International. Sales are on track to surpass carbonated soft drinks in the beverage market by the end of the decade.

“People are starting to rethink the use of everything. Which kind of food I’m eating, what kind of wine I’m drinking, what kind of beer I’m drinking, what kind of water I’m drinking,” Riese says. “That’s the reason why you’re seeing premium and fine waters suddenly popping up in America.”

That increasing interest in water is on display at tasting courses Riese now teaches at Patina Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. At $50 per person, guests are given samples of six different waters with varying TDS levels. Every course has sold out.

“Everybody from a 2 year-old to the 99 year-old grandmother is now tasting these waters,” Riese said. “Water has a huge impact on other beverages, wine, on your health, your body and on food.”

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