Bubbles Aren’t All Bad. Case in Point: Bubbly Tap Water Free Carbonated Tap Water and Other Good Uses of Bubbles

Posted by Peter Smith

champagne-bubbles
The financial bubble. The housing bubble. Petrochemicals bubbling up in the Gulf of Mexico. And now for a refreshingly different bubbly for the new year—free bubbly tap water.

It’s now on draft in New York City at places like Peel's and Brooklyn Farmacy. Chez Panisse in Berkeley has offered it since 2007. European cities are dispensing it in an effort to kick the bottled water habit. Venice gave out home carbonation kits to make its so-called “mayor’s water” frizzante and Paris now offers the bubbly—la pétillante—at a public water fountain in Jardin de Reuilly. Could bubbles reinvigorate the campaign for tap water?

“We think it's a terrific approach to delivering safe, affordable water to consumers,” Kate Fried, of Food and Water’s Tap Back the Tap, told me in an email. “We applaud the level of investment in public water infrastructure that it took to launch the [Paris] project. We'd love to see a similar attention to public water systems here in the U.S.”

Bottled carbonated beverages may date to as early as 3150 B.C. in Egypt, Patrick McGovern, author of Ancient Wines and biomolecular archaeologist, told me, but these drinks were without a doubt alcoholic. So aside from naturally occurring carbonated springs, like the one in Vergeze, France where Hannibal is said to found a refreshing drink after crossing the Alps, or the stinky sulfuric mineral baths at health spas, Europeans don’t seem to have been drinking much effervescent water until the 18th century. In 1767, Joseph Priestley developed a way to infuse the effervescence he harvested from beer into other liquids; he did so because he thought (incorrectly) that it could stave off scurvy. Much like today, bubbly then came with an allure of affluence and health.

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Now, almost all of the multimillion-dollar bubbly water market is based on bubbles added to water after it’s been pumped out of a well. According to the Food and Drug Adminstration’s rules for water sold in the U.S., only “Sparkling Bottled Water” contains natural carbonation (or, curiously, the same amount of carbon dioxide that the water had at the source.) Perrier was actually forced to remove its “naturally sparkling” label after benzene was found in the company’s bottled water in 1989, apparently because of a manufacturing malfunction, all despite the company’s assertion that it’s bubbles were natural.

So unless you’re drinking Saratoga Springs, imported bubbly, Champagne, or bottle-conditioned beer, chances are your bubbly beverage has been infused with commercial CO2, which is either made by burning liquid petroleum or desulphurised natural gas, or is created as a manufacturing biproduct of ammonia or ethanol. Even with the current obsession with sourcing, it’s hard to image those sources making on the farm-to-table menu.

According to Mark Denny in Froth: The Science of Beer, the world’s total beer manufacturing creates 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 bubbles a year. If these CO2 bubbles sound like a contributor to global warming, consider that even at that astronomical sounding rate, carbonation in beer makes up less than one half of one percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions. If anything, the biggest footprint comes from glass bottles, especially those thick enough to contain the 90 pounds per square inch of pressure inside a bottle of Champagne, shipped halfway around the world.

While there’s still little documented health benefits, the tiny bubbles add a sensory perk to drinking, adding the appearance of acidity and activating our so-called “wasabi receptors.” And whether it’s Perrier’s marketing campaign to yuppies in the mid-1970s or French winemakers in the late 19th century pitching Champagne to noveau riche for the holidays, carbonation still adds one thing: a clean, stylish cachet. Even if it’s just plain old tap.

Will 2011 be the year we finally to tap into bubbly water for the masses? Wait, what if we filled pools with bubbly for the new year? Someone’s already thought of that. As food scientist Dave Arnold told Cabinet magazine:

I’ve always wanted to have a swimming pool filled with seltzer, although it would be quite painful. All your orifices would probably hurt. Imagine opening your mouth and diving into a pool of ice-cold seltzer: for a second, you’d be like, Ahh, and then, Err.

I’ll stick with a glass of bubbly, thanks.

Ahh.

Images of Champagne bubbles from Gérard Liger-Belair, viaFlower-shaped structures around bubbles collapsing in a bubble monolayer.”