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'Crazy American' goes to the ends of the Earth for purest form of a life essential

By Mark Puleo, AccuWeather staff writer
August 12, 2019, 9:11:15 PM EDT


For those who enjoy only the finest of luxuries, drinking 15,000-year-old iceberg water may be the new delicacy of choice.

In recent years, companies such as Svalbarði have sought out icebergs to gather and melt into what is considered by some to be the purest drinking water in the world. While Svalbarði is based in Svalbard, Norway, and gathers ice chunks around the North Pole, the company Berg is Canadian-based and collects icebergs in Newfoundland from calves off the ice-shelf in Greenland.

The process of obtaining the ice chunks is a tedious venture. Svalbarði has made two expeditions in the company's history while Berg has only a short window during the year when icebergs float down to Newfoundland. Both companies use vessels to carry the ice chunks back to land, meaning expensive cranes and navigation experts are required for the process.

Jamal Qureshi, the founder and CEO of Svalbarði, has a personal connection for his product. After spending 15 years as a petroleum market analyst, he made the switch from oil to water after taking a visit to Svalbard and collecting melted water from a glacier to bring home to his wife to use for her tea. Qureshi formed the company in the summer of 2013.

"I had fallen in love with this place and discovered that there was a whole world of people who were really into different, unique kinds of waters," Qureshi told AccuWeather. "In the process of that, this just came together and there was an opportunity to do that in Svalbard, discovering too that iceberg waters are some of the rarest ones out there, there’s not many people doing it."

Svalbarði vessel

By harvesting only already-calved ice chunks, Svalbarði, which borrows its name from the medieval term Scandaniavian mariners used to described the ice-covered land at Earth's northernmost reaches, collects only icebergs that were naturally going to sink into the ocean anyway.

"This is why I make a very, very strong distinction between iceberg water versus glacier water." Qureshi said. "We are not going up on a glacier and taking something from there and damaging it, this is a natural cycle in Svalbard. There’s about five billion cubic meters per year that come off the glaciers, so we’re taking something that’s coming off in the natural cycle and taking pieces that are about to be lost and utilizing that."

Edward Kean, a former fisherman who now spends his days collecting icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland, has spent the past 20-plus years scouring for ice chunks. Armed with a rifle that he uses to shoot and break up massive chunks, Kean agreed with Qureshi that the icebergs are being used as an effective resource without disrupting the natural cycle.

"They're going to die in a couple or three weeks and naturally be gone back to nature anyway," Kean said. "So we're not here hurting the environment."

To harvest the ice, Qureshi uses a retired Swedish rescue vessel, the Ulla Rinman.

"She is actually the toughest ice class vessel based up here," Qureshi said. "She can cut through, if necessary, a meter of ice. But we don’t go out when there is sea ice just because we’re trying to get the iceberg, not the frozen sea water."

Qureshi gathers intel from glaciologists who can accurately predict the movements of icebergs that will be easier to harvest. They look for certain characteristics that will indicate better tasting water and then use the Ulla Rinman's crane and net to pull the ice chunks into the boat's storage basins.

Svalbardi


"We’re looking for ice that’s been preserved and protected, inside the glacier's center," Qureshi said. "Some of the signs that we look for are no huge amounts of dirt on the glacier, because that indicates that it’s been scraping along the ground and that’s when it picks up minerals, so we don’t want that. The other thing that we look for is bubbling in the ice. You want to see as many bubbles as possible and the bubbles to be as small as possible. That indicates that it's been compacted in there for a very long time. If the ice is just smooth, there’s a decent chance that it has melted and re-frozen, which exposes it to the air. We’d rather ice that’s been there since it first fell as snow. "

Qureshi said all of this work and precision is worth it for a product that he compares to being as pure as eating a snowball that's 4,000 years old.

In the world of appreciating high-class, fine water, Martin Riese is considered the top expert. Renown as a certified water sommelier, Riese has been featured on television shows, written about in magazines and employed by prestigious restaurants. According to Riese, iceberg water is one of the purest waters on the planet because of its low TDS, total dissolved solids, levels.

Due to the low TDS levels, Riese said that iceberg water can make for a great pairing with certain types of foods, like fish dishes, similar to a white wine. While it's common knowledge that certain wines pair well with certain foods, Riese said people should also consider which waters pair best with certain foods.

Martin Riese


"But with water, nobody would even thinking about pairing. But actually you can, because due to the TDS levels, water has an impact on foods and even other beverages," Riese told AccuWeather. "So for example, in ice glacier water, even with a very low mineral content, it’s actually very interesting that it’s slightly bitter on your palate. All iceberg waters have this slight bitterness in the aftertaste."

In continuing his comparison with wine, Riese described how the terroir, the natural factors from which the drink is produced, can greatly impact the taste of different waters from different regions. Rain that falls over a volcanic region will pick up many more minerals and taste very different from rain that remains frozen in a glacier for 15,000 years.

"It’s quite fascinating that waters in a different bottle, that is all called H2O and all looks clear to you, can have totally different mineral composition," Riese said. "Because an iceberg water tastes totally different than a water from a hot springs, for example. You can measure this by TDS, total dissolved solids, and the higher the TDS level, the stronger it will taste in the water."

Due to the rarity, however, Riese said the only companies he has ever tasted are Berg and Svalbarði.

Both Berg and Svalbarði are considered luxury items and Qureshi compared his product to an expensive wine, a rarity that he doesn't expect people to drink on a daily basis. Svalbarði is mainly sold from its website and featured in some high-end restaurants, featured at prices ranging from $96 for a single bottle to $469 for a case of six. Berg can be purchased through other retail channels such as Sams Club for about $150 for a 12-pack, which is advertised as being "harvested from 15,000 year old North Atlantic icebergs."

While those prices probably don't fit within most consumers weekly grocery budget, Qureshi said there are a wide variety of types of customers that purchase Svalbarði.

Svalbard ice


"If I look at the profile of the typical customer, a lot of people assume it’s the super rich, but actually [the] vast majority of our customers are very ordinary folks," he said. "For them, this is an affordable luxury. It’s something really unique, the same as a nice bottle of wine or a unique piece of glassware."

Qureshi is half-Norwegian and visited the northern city of Svalbard on a trip while he was working in southern Norway. He constantly emphasizes the importance of his company's environmental vision and giving back to the nature that provides him his product.

In Svalbard, Qureshi has witnessed firsthand how the rising water temperatures have altered the freezing patterns of the bay, and he recognizes the opportunity for his company to make a positive impact.

"That’s where this becomes an opportunity to help and try to save our home here, because we can take a portion of the revenues from something that’s about to be lost and contribute to sea level rise, and we can use that to finance projects to reduce CO2," he said. "It’s not just that we’re carbon negative, I can look at this now and tell our customers that with every purchase, we’re saving 100 times more of the Arctic ice cap. So it’s got a very personal feeling to it."

While he said that residents of Svalbard were initially skeptical of the "crazy American that wanted to grab icebergs and sell them," they now support him and take his products around the world to show off the beauty of their home.

"People love it. It’s a mythical place for so many people and to get something that’s a personal, literal piece of it is something that people just love."

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