How Did Bottled Water Become A Global Industry?

You can get it for free from any tap and yet bottled mineral water sustains a global industry worth billions. How did this happen? Our teetotal editor-at-large goes straight to the source (not the sauce), in Buxton, Derbyshire

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I have seen birth and I have seen death, I have reached the most ecstatic highs and endured the most devastating lows. In my 52 years on this planet, I may not have achieved wisdom, serenity or any great degree of emotional intelligence, but I like to think I've covered the waterfront when it comes to human experience. I once performed a tracheotomy on a choking man using only one of those pitifully inadequate stirrers they poke through the lids of takeaway coffees; granted he didn't really need the operation, but the important thing is, I went for it. All this being noted, I think it fair to say it's a measure of quite how blinkered my life has truly been that were I compelled now to name the most significant – nay, epochal – event I've ever witnessed, it would have to be this one.

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It was around the spring of 1988, and my friend-cum-business partner Nigel and I were running a small corporate magazine company; the kind that produces brochures and employee publications. We were attempting, in our slightly ineffectual way, to build up the business and to that end we pitched our services to just about anyone who'd sit down long enough to listen. This particular lunchtime, we were in a new branch of the long-established Bertorelli restaurant that had opened in Covent Garden, and our prospect was some sort of banking wonk from the City. You have to bear in mind that this was only a couple of years after Thatcher's Big Bang of financial deregulation, and arty-farty types like Nigel and I still didn't altogether know what finance was – all that was to come later. We still thought lapel badges with clenched fists on them were cool, and wore our wide-lapelled, double-breasted suit jackets under some kind of sufferance.

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Anyhow, there we were with the wonk, who seemed snappish and ill-tempered in a thrusting kind of a way. By 1988, mineral water – in particular, Perrier – was already strongly identified with the burgeoning yuppie class and if memory serves me right, there was even talk of such exotica as Badoit. Nigel and I had recently undertaken another pitch at another newly opened, Eighties London trend-spot – the Design Museum – and both been enormously impressed by the bluey-purple bottles of a Swedish mineral water called Ramlosa on every table. But again: you have to bear in mind that mineral-water-quaffing as a status symbol was a very new phenomenon indeed.

Both Nigel and I belong to a generation who can remember when the only mineral water you saw was in France, and points south (referred to generically as "Vichy water"), while the only reason any self-respecting person would order it was because the tap water was unsafe… Indeed, I can remember my father telling me how at his public school, boys used to be served with small (ie, very weak) beer, because the water wasn't fit for upper-middle-class consumption. In retrospect, I realise he wasn't referring to the period when he was at the school – the late Twenties and early Thirties – but an earlier era; however, his cod-reminiscence linked me to a time emphatically before potable mains-delivered aqua. In 1988, non-utilitarian mineral water was sufficiently novel that it needed to be specially requested; the still-or-sparkling enquiry was yet to be incorporated into the pre-ordering ritual.

When the wonk ordered sparkling mineral, we were impressed by his distinctively modern ebullition, but this was as nothing compared to what came next. When the hapless waiter brought a bottle to the table and, without more ado, twisted off the cap and tipped a gush of it into a glass full of ice cubes, our man sprang into action, plunged his hand in after it, yanked out a cube and, extending his shaking hand, said in venom-dripping tones: "Unless this ice was made using the same mineral water as you've just poured on it, you're making a mockery of me and wasting my money."

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Well, I dare say you'll understand why this statement speared to the core of my liquid body, and why the ripples it created in my psyche have continued expanding to this day. Indeed, I have to bite my lip every time I'm served mineral water with ice lest I repeat the same chilling statement, which is – as I'm sure you'll agree – at once the most odious nonsense, and nothing but the pure, unalloyed truth.

Not only was it the truth then, but it was also the translucent shape of things to come: a bubbling world of costly water. Now, you've only to step out of your front door in order to happen upon water for sale; fuck it – you needn't even go forth, because there's probably a bottle of Evian lurking in your fridge. (Although not in mine: once you realise that Evian spelt backwards is "naïve" you can never allow another drop to pass your jaded lips.) People swig from little plastic bottles of the stuff on trains, in cars, as they walk along the streets, and no meeting of any kind is complete without its pellucid liquid addendum to the agenda. How did we get to this state of affairs? Is the stuff coming out of the tap any worse than it was formerly? Or is it that the rise and rise of the mineral tide is only the commercialised correlative to the great public utility sell-offs of the Nineties: after all, you pay for tap water now, so why shouldn't you pay for all water, and handsomely? The idea that water – like air, or sunlight – is some sort of natural resource of the planet that should be freely available to rich and poor alike now seems as quaint as newspaper-wrapped chips, or five-figure City bonuses.

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The editor of this morning glory of an organ (sustained by a bladderful of the clear stuff of genius), expressed some doubts when I said I wanted to write a feature on mineral water – he wasn't altogether sure the subject was sufficiently, um, concentrated for dilution over 3,000 words – but I assured him. As a teetotaller for nigh on 15 years, I've drunk a hell of a lot of mineral water, and while I can appreciate that if you have the liberty to choose between a lukewarm beaker of Volvic and two parts of Bunnahabhain to a further one of clear Scots spring water, the former beverage pales into insignificance, if it's your only option you take a connoisseur's interest. So, let me be your dowser in this sea of bubbles, twitching as I register the real thing. I'm not saying I could pass a blindfold mineral water test (the very idea) although a few years ago, together with a dry friend, I did organise a large-scale mineral-water tasting; and after supping our way through some 20 premium brands – still, frizzante and sparkling – a clear winner did emerge.

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Of course, when seriously considering the great effluvium of mineral water, one issue must be dealt with head-on and this is the suspicion – especially marked in those establishments that serve their "own-brand" water in bottles with lever-catch tops – that far from it being sourced from a sinuous rill deep in a natal cleft of the Alps (as the label claims), there's a bus boy sitting in the basement filling the empties from a tap, and giving every second bottle a squirt from a SodaStream before slapping on the £3.95 price tag. Therefore, to set my ever-sceptical mind to rest, I took the train to Buxton to visit the Buxton Natural Mineral Water plant.

Buxton may not be the toppermost on your mineral water hit parade – it certainly isn't on mine – but there's no disputing its status. Together with Evian and Highland Spring, it's one of the big beasts (whales?) in water world, with about 14.5 per cent market share. Standing on a gantry with quality assurance manager Matthew Faulkner, looking down on all those little blue-capped bottles being hustled along the production line, we did a quick calculation based on the factory's 2013 output of 414m bottles, and reached the awe-inspiring conclusion that, on average, every man, woman and child in the country now drinks around 42 bottles of its mineral water a year. This doesn't allow for volume – this figure lumped in dinky 30cl sports bottles with big bruising 1.5l table ones – but it still gives you a fairly accurate picture: we're drowning in the stuff. Buxton, whose Roman name, Aquae Arnemetiae, means "spa of the goddess of the grove", has been pumping out water since before men had urethras and had to urinate through their noses (all right, I made that up). The water bottled here has been filtering through the limestone underpinning the whole area for around 5,000 years; it then rises up over about 30 days, before emerging in downtown Buxton at a toasty 28°C. It's then piped 100m to St Anne's Well, where any old schmuck can rock up and drink until he's dropsical.

The Buxton bottling plant in full flow
 

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Which is exactly what I did. It tasted… well, watery, and was a bit tepid. Not a lot to erect an entire industry on, but Buxton, like many other spa towns, managed it. This was, of course, long before mains water. It was an innocent era when the well-to-do would happily travel for days to sit around a pump room gossiping and drinking pure H2O, before trying a little gentle full-immersion. With its sandstone Georgian buildings and its opera house (complete with a vast dome, for a long time the largest unsupported one in the world), Buxton still feels like the sort of place desiccated Jane Austen characters hang out in, rather than anybody wet 'n' wild: the whole town has been blue-rinsed. By the railway station, the town sign is, in fact, the Buxton Water brand logo: it must be strange being a water company town, but then no stranger, I suppose, than being a cocaine town like Medellín, or a breakfast cereal one such as Wellingborough in Northants, which I've visited (it honks 24/7 of Weetabix).

I walked the two miles out of town to the factory, trying to build up a thirst. I'd considered trekking over the hills from Chapel-en-le-Frith, or pitching up a little early so I could visit the giant Poole's Cavern, a 300m-long gouge out of the limestone that, while unconnected to the prized spring, is nonetheless a potent example of water's steady insistence on shaping what we take to be terra firma. But as I said at the outset: I've done highs and lows; it was time to cut to the water chaser.

Purity is the buzzword at Buxton. When I asked Matthew how healthy is his water, the rubicund young man near blanched: "It's not a claim we make for our water," he said. "What I can tell you is that since it's been a mile underground until very recently it's entirely free of pesticides and fertiliser nitrates." As to those healthy minerals, Matthew, a microbiologist by training, was equally dry: "There's calcium and sulphur in it, but you'll find those in just about any water."

If Buxton Water doesn't make any health-giving claims for its products, it has every right to for its factory. An impressive building opened last year, its quasi-dry-stone façade (the stones are in fact in giant "cages") and dramatic waveform roof harmonise about as well with the surrounding Peak District countryside as any huge bottling plant could be expected to.

The health-and-safety video Esquire's photographer Chris Floyd and I were required to watch was exhaustive: it's only a small exaggeration to say that once on the factory floor, if we allowed one of our hands to touch the other we'd have to wash them both. We were issued with steel-toe-capped shoes, red coats, hairnets and ear-protectors. A stylish outfit, although we were overcome with envy when we saw that beard snoods were available. I'd happily grow a beard if I could wear a beard snood – and I'd feel a lot happier about all those chaps currently trolling around the place with great Victorian fleeces curling off their faces if they, too, would only wear beard snoods. I expect Howard Hughes wore a beard snood, and I also think the Buxton Water factory would've been to his obsessive-compulsive mysophobic taste; I felt safer and healthier simply strolling about on its immaculately clean floors and watching its sterilised machinery disgorge thousands upon thousands of mineral water bottles.

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A factory employee wearing a protective beard snood inside the Buxton bottling plant,

Matthew Faulkner isn't the sort of fellow to wax lyrical – or even wane farcical – but even he grew a little dewy-eyed when showing us the two units where the bottles are blown into being from a thick little plastic tit called a form, and then instantly filled with the proverbial water of life. "The entire procedure is completely sealed off," he explained. "No human ever gets near that water." We were, so to speak, standing beside the boy in the basement filling up the bottles – except it wasn't a boy it was a machine. I forbore from suggesting Buxton Water might cut out the middle humanity altogether by simply leaving the stuff down below for another five millennia, although I did venture that in essence – which is surely all water is in the final analysis – the entire operation was only adding value by packaging what came out of the ground. I softened the steady, iron-hard jet of my critique by saying I was only playing devil's advocate, but the thing is: I'm the devil. I can just about see the point of fizzy mineral water, and my favourite fizz – of which more later – is both naturally carbonated, and has a higher mineral content than insipid Buxton. But limpid, tasteless mineral water, aw, c'mon now capitalism, you can do better than that.

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You can do better than creating a vast market for something that's already ubiquitous and almost free; you can do better than uselessly manufacturing 2,016m plastic bottles every year. Matthew told me Buxton has slimmed down its bottles enormously in the past few years in order to address environmental concerns: the factory operates with a zero-landfill policy, and polyethylene terephthalate at least has the virtue of being recyclable, unlike other plastics. This is all well and good but it doesn't stop dickheads discarding bottles in the great outdoors, where their chemicals can leech into the water table, or tossers tossing them into the great briny, where they're broken down into little pellets that are ingested by fish. But then, I suppose I was grabbing hold of the wrong end of the divining rod: standing on the gantry, watching some balletic robots sort, stack, wrap and palletise more and more costly water, Matthew patiently spelled it out for me: "We don't see ourselves as competing with tap. We're aiming at the same market as soft drinks, we're an alternative to Coke."

It was an epiphany to match the one I'd had all those years ago when the City wonk upbraided the waiter for diluting his, um, water. What a klutz I'd been: of course this water isn't water; it's a beverage that can be served with all the ceremony of the finest soft drinks known to man. I mean to say, if my sort of twisted thinking got going, where would it end? I'd begin to see silk shirts as complex human adaptations of insects' cocoons, or shoes as cut and shaped cows' skins, or the money in circulation as a series of computer impulses wholly disconnected from the real world – and that way madness lies. I was grateful to Matthew for talking me down from the gantry over this anarchic abyss.

We went to look at the laboratory where each day's output is exhaustively analysed and then taste-tested by the employees themselves. A sign on the wall advised the tasters they shouldn't have allowed anything flavoursome – coffee, tea, tobacco – past their lips in the half hour before they tasted something that most people, with some justification, regard as tasteless. I asked Matthew what the "reference water" referred to on the sign was. He explained this would be the water with which the day's water was compared: "It's usually yesterday's."

I think I could be forgiven for feeling a little dizzy as I whirled around in all this colourless, odourless fluidity. I thought back to my own mineral-water tasting. My friend and I soon agreed that almost the biggest factor in mineral water was the bottling: anything in plastic tastes, well, plastic. Then there was carbonation (only five per cent or so of Buxton is carbonated), but if kissing a man without a moustache is like eating an egg without salt, then in my view drinking a mineral water without bubbles is like wearing a beard snood when you haven't got a beard: why bother? Of all the sparkling waters we tasted, one floated high above the others: its bubbles were somehow both bigger and lusher, giving us a distinctively snappish and thrusting feeling. Yes, our favourite mineral water was Perrier, and how banal is that? Still, I suppose just as the pop music you heard when you were in your teens stays with you forever, so the mineral water you drank when you were first suited, booted, and making a crap sales pitch remains the most evocative.

I'd told Matthew that I didn't really like the so-called "sports caps" that are now ubiquitous on plastic mineral water bottles, but I was grateful for the one on the bottle he handed me as we left the laboratory. Sucking hard on this artificial nipple I was also thankful for the pure gushes of Buxton that filled my mouth. It may not be my favourite mineral water, but there's no disputing its paradoxical capacity to refresh a man drowning in a sea of memories.

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