Why Germans Are Obsessed with Mineral Water
From Roman aqueducts to multinational distributors, Germany has always loved its bubbles
Most people know how particular Germans are about their beer, but they can be even more particular about their water. (Germans can be particular about anything they set their minds to.) Though German tap water is among the safest and best-tasting in Europe, most Germans prefer bottled water, in mineral, sparkling, and flat varieties, purchased by the case at the grocery store, or by the bottle at a restaurant, like wine. Water in German restaurants is offered with or without Gas, but even most non-sparkling water offered at restaurants and bars won’t be tap water, but uncarbonated mineral water.
Germans recycle as a matter of civic duty. But for all their religious recycling, Germans show no sign of slowing on their bottled water consumption. In 2016, Germany’s per capita bottled-water consumption was estimated at 46.8 gallons, compared to 39.3 gallons per capita in the US, where citizens’ relationship to bottled water consumption varies by region and class. Cities like Flint, MI, are entirely dependent on bottled water as a clean drinking source, while über-green San Francisco has been trying to ban bottled water for nearly a decade. But Germans’ affinity for bottled water has little to do with public safety or consumerist environmental negligence, and everything to do with their affinity for carbonated drinks, in particular mineral water.
In the US, we tend to have an unconsidered sense of the terms we use to describe fizzy water: seltzer, sparkling water, soda water, club soda, and mineral water all fall under the general umbrella of Fancy Water. La Croix has become the official drink of the New York media elite, and Polar has long been the less flashy hometown hero of anyone from north and east of Fairfield County, CT, but what do we really mean when we talk about seltzer?
Strictly speaking, seltzer, sparkling water, and soda water refer today to the same substance: water that is force-carbonated with carbon dioxide. The process of forced carbonation was discovered in 1767 by Joseph Priestly, an English chemist and polymath. Club soda differs contextually, typically employed as a flavorless mixer, as well as chemically: It contains potassium bicarbonate, the active ingredient in baking soda.
Mineral water is a different beast entirely, and a German will be the first to set you straight. Technically a kind of spring water—unfiltered water bottled from a natural spring—mineral water is created as rainwater seeps through layers of earth, acquiring mineral elements along the way, which remain in the water. EU law requires that mineral water marketed as such be minimally treated, if at all, with allowances made for removing certain naturally occurring elements like iron, sulfur, and arsenic. The specific mineral makeup of every region determines the mineral content of the water filtered through it. It’s the ultimate check on those of us inclined to say, “But it all tastes the same.” It all sort of does, at least to an American rube like me, but taste isn’t the entire point. Germans who insist on mineral water insist on it for its chemical properties as much as its flavor and carbonation. Many springs contain dissolved carbon, and are therefore naturally sparkling, but EU law also allows for carbonation to be added or removed to taste during the bottling process. A single mineral water brand may offer two or three tiers of carbonation, much like pulp in orange juice, ranging from flat to extra-sparkly.
Jean Jacob Schweppe was the first true seltzer magnate, having developed a method for force-carbonating water with carbon dioxide after encountering Priestly’s writing on carbonation. Schweppe’s carbonated water would be similar to prized mineral water in its texture, but not necessarily limited to natural sources. Schweppe founded the Schweppes Company in 1783, and gained popularity with his so-called “drunken bottle,” a torpedo-shaped bottle that could not stand up, a cumbersome design that contained a stroke of genius: because the bottle needed to be stored on its side, the cork remained wet even after opening, which prevented the carbon dioxide from escaping, keeping the remaining seltzer carbonated for longer.
Unlike true Champagne, not all seltzer comes from Selters, a town in the southwestern German state of Hesse that is the namesake of the drink we know today. The naturally carbonated mineral water found in Selters became known as Selterswasser, literally “Selters water,” or Selterser, meaning “from Selters.” Say Selterswasser three times fast and you’ve got the abbreviated, anglophone-friendly “seltzer water.”
Knowledge of mineral wells in the then-Roman territory of Selters dates from the late eighth century AD. In the following centuries it became one of dozens of spa towns in Germany where one could “take in the waters,” which were believed to have healing properties. Because mineral springs were initially a health cure, mineral water has retained an association with health in Germany that may be unearned, if not quite incorrect. But whether it’s the result of a millennium of associating mineral springs with spa vacations or an earnest scientific belief in the salient Gesundheit of consuming .039 grams of Magnesium per liter of water, Germans tend to believe the fizzier it is, the healthier.
This type of food superstition is common to many cultures, not unlike the Chinese custom of drinking hot water rather than cold, or Americans’ compulsion to refrigerate everything from onions to peanut butter. But Germans’ fizzy fixation comes with an added touch of regionalism. Due to its history, Germany is more regional than might be expected for a country smaller than the state of Texas. From the earliest Germanic tribes to the country’s modern beginnings, in 1871, when German-speaking kingdoms and duchies were unified, to its division into East and West from 1949 to 1990, and subsequent reunification, German citizens often identify strongly with their region of origin. That can be reflected in loyalty to their hometown brewery right down to their taste in water. There are nearly 150 commercial mineral springs in Germany, each with its own regional fan base. It’s easy enough today to find Gerolsteiner and Apollinaris in US grocery stores, but many of the most beloved brands aren’t distributed far beyond where they’re sourced. Most German towns that start with Bad (“bath”)—and there are a lot of them—can be assumed to have some history with natural springs and mineral water.
Here are five German towns that show the rich history of mineral water in Germany, from Roman aqueducts to multinational distributors.
Selters is a town of about 8,000 people in the west-central German state of Hessen, nestled in the Taunus Mountains. Though first mention of the town’s mineral spring dates from 772, it was made famous in 1581 by the city physician of nearby Worms (as in Diet of), who spent several pages of a publication on “water cures” exalting the acidic water of Niederselters.. The mild irony of Selters and Selterswasser being the source of our modern “seltzer” is that mineral water from Selters is high in sodium bicarbonate, making it, in essence, mineral club soda. Selters’ water was exported widely as early as the 18th century, and was the highest-selling mineral water in Germany until 1871, when it was overtaken by the now-giant Apollinaris, from Bad Neuenahr in Rhineland-Palatinate, which substituted heavy earthenware water bottles with more transportable glass ones.
The oldest mineral spring in Germany was first used in 48 BCE, in what was then part of the Roman Empire. Now it’s in the western German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, in a region known as Vulkaneifel, which is rich in volcanic lakes and mineral springs. The spring was used by the Romans until at least 408 AD, a timeline suggested by the discovery of a collection of Roman coins during the tapping of a spring on the site of a Carmelite cloister of St. Anthony the Great. The mineral water brand Tönissteiner was founded in 1891, taking its name from St. Anthony (“Antonius-Stein” becoming “Tönis-Stein”). According to the company’s website, German use of the Vulkaneifel mineral springs dates from at least 1501, when it was referenced in records of the nearby city of Andernach.
One of the oldest commercially viable mineral water springs is Gerolsteiner, located in Gerolstein, in Rhineland-Palatinate. Gerolstein is a designated Luftkurort, literally “air cure place,” an area with a climate judged to be beneficial for health and recovery. Though evidence of human habitation in caves in the region date to the Stone Age, Gerolstein was not incorporated as a city until 1336. Use of mineral springs in and around Gerolstein can be traced to the Celts and Romans that once inhabited the area, but the springs were not commercialized until the founding of Gerolsteiner in 1888. Within two years, the company was exporting clay bottles of its effervescent Sprudel as far away as Chicago, which then had a large German immigrant population. The Gerolsteiner factory was destroyed by bombing in 1944, and didn’t return to normal operation until 1948. It has since become one of the largest and best-known brands of mineral water in the world.
Originally populated by Celtic peoples in the first millennium BC, in the Rhineland region of western Germany, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler now sources of one of the largest and most well-known mineral water brands in the world, Apollinaris. The Apollinaris mineral spring was discovered in 1852 by Georg Kreuzberg, who was drilling around in a parcel of land he purchased near Heppinger Brunnen, a different mineral spring that had then been in use as both a spa and a water source for nearly three hundred years. With the help of Karl Gustav Bischof, a geologist from Bonn, Kreuzberg found what he was looking for a mere 1,000 meters from Heppinger Brunnen. By 1860, Apollinaris was only doing 1/10 of the business of Heppinger Brunnen, which had long-standing export connections to nearby Holland. Aided by industrial advances of the preceding century, Kreuzberg’s new venture quickly overtook Heppinger, and in 1870 leased the spring for its own use. In the past century and a half, Apollinaris has appeared in popular culture from Henry James to American Psycho, and since since 2006 it’s been owned by Coca-Cola.
Though “Bad Kissinger” may be an apt descriptor for Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, it’s also the name of a brand of mineral water from Bad Kissingen, in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria. Known as one of the Great Spas of Europe, Bad Kissingen is rich in waters used for both so-called “drinking cures” (Trinkkuren) and “bathing cures” (Badekuren), containing seven distinct springs for one or the other. These springs have been in use since the ninth century AD, and the first dedicated Kurgast—“cure guest,” someone visiting explicitly to take in the waters—was recorded in 1520.
Three hundred years later, in 1820, King Ludwig I of Bavaria would take in the waters himself, eventually sending his architect, Friedrich von Gärtner, to construct stately arcades and swank hotels in the city. By the 19th century Bad Kissingen had become a chic resort destination, and in 1839, demand for its water was so high that an armory was built for the purpose of making and shipping clay containers of beloved Bad Kissingen Heilwasser around the world. That century would also see visits from Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Charles Steinway, Leo Tolstoy, and Alfred Nobel. Today bathing cures feel a bit old-fashioned, but a would-be Kurgast need no longer travel all that way for a Trinkkur, at least: Kissinger Bitterwasser is high in salt, magnesium, and sulfate, and bottled by Franken Brunnen, a large mineral water distributor in nearby Neustadt an der Aisch.