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(Yonhap Feature) Water sommelier proof of diversifying water demands in S. Korea

All Headlines 09:00 March 30, 2018

By Choi Kyong-ae

SEOUL, March 30 (Yonhap) -- Kim Ha-neul, a 28-year-old Seoulite, has landed a new kind of job where he tastes, parses and recommends a material that is essential to life. That material is neither wine nor coffee, but water.

Kim is one of South Korea's 10 most active water sommeliers. In 2014 when the job title was entirely new to many, he began his unusual job at a water bar in the country's leading department store chain. He believed the country's drinking water market would become more diversified due to a growing appetite for customized, high-end products.

He worked at the country's first water bar at the Shinsegae Department Store in Banpo, southern Seoul in 2014. The country's only water bar is still in operation.

"During my trip to Canada in 2013, I found dozens of refrigerators standing against the wall of a branch of local retail store London Drugs and they were filled with a single drinking water brand per fridge. It was in a sharp contrast with fridges at Korean stores which contain only a few drinking water brands," Kim said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.

"I thought Korea's drinking water market had big growth potential given what I saw in Canada, which was still diversifying and growing even if its tap water system is safe and well-established."

In this photo taken March 28, 2018, water sommelier Kim Ha-neul (L) and Ko Jae-youn, president of the Korea International Sommelier Association (KISA), pose for a photo after an interview with Yonhap News Agency at a Starbucks coffee shop in Mapo, western Seoul. (Yonhap)

As Korean customers' demands for drinking water diversifies and they increasingly select drinking water based on beauty and health considerations, more companies are jumping into the market, which in turn will lead to more specialized products.

The country's drinking water market grew to 780 billion won (US$731.7 million) last year and is expected to reach 800 billion won this year and 1 trillion won in 2020, according to Nielsen Korea, a market research firm.

Currently, there are about 150 drinking water products and 200 Koreans with an international water sommelier certificate. Hotels and high-end restaurants are moving to work with water sommeliers as they seek higher profits by luring more patrons with deep pockets.

"I see a growing number of restaurants that want to serve optimal drinking water products for their food. Foreign visitors to Michelin-starred restaurants in Korea want to be served differently in terms of drinking water," Kim said.

The market looks set to grow bigger. The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries plans to help the deep sea water market grow to a 1 trillion won industry by 2024 from 75 billion won in 2015.

Deep sea water is seawater pumped up from a depth of over 200 meters and can be utilized in the cosmetics, medicine and food industries. There are many people who think that drinking such water can help combat such diseases as cancer, diabetes, obesity and skin problems.

"South Korea is one of four countries that actually train water sommeliers, along with Italy, Japan and Germany. The country is expected to open a hospital offering aqua therapy for patients, and more water bars that sell a variety of drinking water products to customers are expected to come to Korea," Ko Jae-youn, 63, president of the Korea International Sommelier Association (KISA), told Yonhap.

Some water therapy-focused hospitals are in operation in Europe and water bars are common in Japan, said Ko, who also teaches food service management at Kyung Hee University.

He pointed out that as water is an essential resource for human beings, individuals and companies should consider getting advice with regards to the water they drink and serve.

In these photos taken March 28, 2018, water sommelier Kim Ha-neul (L) tastes an imported mineral water at his office in Seoul. (Yonhap)
In this photo taken March 29, 2018, and provided by her, Roh Hyeon-young, a 61-year-old saleswoman, enjoys a bottle of deep sea drinking water at an outlet of home-grown direct selling company Atomy Co. in Daegu, about 300km south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

There is little doubt that customers are the driving force behind the growth of the local drinking water market.

Roh Hyeon-young, a 61-year-old resident in Daegu, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, has stuck to deep sea drinking water since July last year due to its "proven" health benefits.

She learned about deep sea water when she began to work as a sales partner at home-grown direct selling company Atomy Co.

"After months of drinking deep sea water, I felt less exhausted and found positive changes to my skin. The deep sea water product prices are a bit higher than existing regular ones, but it is worth it," Roh said.

She said all her friends and family, including her 16-month-old grandson, drink deep sea water for health reasons.

In recent years, the sale of customized drinking water products for pregnant women and babies has been on the rise. Koreans, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, are getting more picky in choosing drinking water, KISA President Ko said.

These photos taken March 28, 2018, show a variety of drinking water products on display in water sommelier Kim Ha-neul's office in Sungsoo, eastern Seoul. (Yonhap)

kyongae.choi@yna.co.kr
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