“Sprudelwasser, bitte!”: An Introduction to German Water CultureWater
“Mit oder ohne?”
If you’ve ever ordered water in Germany, you’ll be familiar with this restaurant scenario. The waiter arrives at your table, you ask for water, and they respond with a very crucial question: would you like your water “mit” (with) bubbles, or “ohne” (without)? The next thing you know, a nice cold bottle of mineral water arrives at your table, with or without the pre-discussed bubbles.
And while tap water lovers might be prevalent in London or New York, in Germany, mineral water is the much preferred norm. In fact, mineral water is so much the norm that a recent study found, the average German drinks 143.6 litres of bottled mineral water per year – 85% of which is either lightly or heavily carbonated.
Trustworthy Tap Water
These numbers are particularly interesting when considering that tap water in Germany is completely safe to drink. An asset that other bottled water lovers can’t necessarily boast: Germany trails just behind Mexico, Thailand and Italy on the scale of highest bottle water consumption – countries whose tap water is either considered unsafe or simply unpalatable to drink.
In fact, many Germans proudly declare that they see tap water as the most heavily-controlled consumable in Germany. The German Ministry for Nutrition and Agriculture, for example, lists their extensive guidelines for mineral water content and tap water safety on their website, with new regulations regularly introduced.
Steeped In History
As the thirst for bottled mineral water steadily rises every year, it’s also worth noting that the trend is actually nothing new for Germany.
Whilst mineral water was first discovered by the Greeks, later adopted by the Romans, it only really took off when two German water companies started to make mineral spring water less of a luxury, and more accessible for the everyday German.
These two companies – Selters and Staatlich Fachingen – are still in business today, with the naturally-carbonated former being so popular that it’s name has actually morphed into the commonly used American word for carbonated water: “seltzer.”
Schweppes was another brand to arrive on the scene. Starting in 1783, in neighbouring Switzerland, Schweppes was the first company to both artificially carbonate water and distribute it on a grand scale. It quickly became successful in Germany and later internationally, only to remain one of the most well-known carbonated beverage companies.
Lost and Pfand
Considering how many bottles of mineral water are consumed in Germany every day, it might not seem like the most sustainable pastime. However in 2003, an incentivized recycling program – known as the Pfandsystem (“deposit system”) – was swiftly introduced as a countermeasure.
The system works like this: for every water bottle (or can) purchased, consumers pay an additional Pfand of 8-25 cents (depending on the packaging type) on top of the price. The Pfand is consequently also reclaimable when you return each bottle to be recycled, ensuring that materials are responsibly recycled and reused – and that you get your money back.
It has encouraged a massive peak in recycling but it’s also helped to combat littering in cities. And, it’s also given people the chance to earn a bit of extra income if you’re in the habit of cleaning up public spaces and parks of bottles and cans to collect Pfand.
A national grassroots campaign called Pfand Gehört Daneben (“Pfand belongs on the side”) even encourages people to leave their empty water bottles next to public trash cans rather than inside, in order to make the job of bottle collectors much easier.
Still, in a country where the majority of people turn to bottled water for their hydration needs, there are of course an abundance of bottles that don’t make their way back into the recycling system.
What Germans say
Eager to learn more about German water culture, we asked a number of our German colleagues, family and friends for the inside scoop on their personal drinking water habits.
The consensus? Despite most agreeing on the safety of tap water, for the majority, it still carried a negative connotation. One source declared that the cultural tendency to avoid tap water stems from a deep-rooted scepticism, directed primarily towards post-war infrastructure: mistrust of the pipes in the building and an unpalatable taste were among the main responses. What’s more, the word for tap water in German – Leitungswasser – literally means ‘plumbing water’ (perhaps not the most enticing name).
Only 25% of respondents reported drinking tap water regularly while growing up, with their childhood water tending to either be bottled (and carbonated), or filtered by an in-home device.
And nearly 50% said they occasionally drink tap water now, despite its unappealing taste. The majority also expressed concerns about trace amounts of contaminants that could be present in their drinking water.
The Well Runs Deep
A culture of health-conscious water aficionados is at the core of Germany. And we are proud to be designing Mitte here in Berlin, where design standards are high and expectations for water quality are even higher.
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