Summit Spring natural spring water battles to stay afloat against industry giants and consumer perceptions, while preserving the sanctity of one of the rarest geological phenomena in North America.
When Bryan Pullen purchased Summit Spring in 2004 (against the advice of his attorney) he knew he was buying not only a piece of history, but something so rare that he couldn't pass it up.
In the late 1800's, tourists travelled by horse-drawn carriages to the highest point of Cumberland County, Maine to experience the healing powers of Summit Spring. It was said that the tonic could remedy everything from arthritis to liver disorders.
While Pullen is not exactly touting the magical healing powers of his water, his reverence for what he refers to as "hallowed ground" has not lessened. But surviving as David amidst industry Goliaths requires more than divine intervention. In order to keep his business alive, Pullen has invested in significant capital and restorations, pushed to educate consumers and, most importantly, done everything in his power to protect the sanctity of his water's single source, Summit Spring.
The labels on Summit Spring water claim the water "comes to you just as it bubbles from the spring," and this fact alone makes the spring somewhat unique. The geological definition of a spring is a place where water appears at the Earth's surface on its own. This should not be confused with the more common method of sourcing bottled water, which is through a borehole. A borehole is a drilled shaft through which water is pumped up from underground aquifers.
"Since pumping water through boreholes bypasses the natural filtration process of water percolating through layers of sand and fine gravel, most of these engineered 'spring waters' have to be mechanically filtered and chemically treated to remove all of the silt, debris and other contaminants that get sucked up in the process," explains Pullen.
Summit Spring water bubbles over naturally at a single source in the original spring house, and is gravity-fed directly to the on-site bottling facility. As such, it is never exposed to anything - such as air, fumes, sunlight - that could damage the integrity of the water.
"As soon as ground water becomes surface water and is exposed to the elements, it is 'ruined' and needs to be treated," says Pullen. "Water is alive and nutrient-rich. Light is the enemy of water. Once water is exposed to light and other modern contaminants, it needs to be processed, and this processing makes the water inert - essentially, dead."
Summit Spring believes that part of protecting the quality of the water involves keeping a low profile.
"Some well-known bottled water brands have enjoyed more commercial success because of the public access to their springs," notes Pullen.
However, there are no signs for Summit Spring, and the gated property is only accessible via gravel roads deep in the woods. Paving the roads would involve tar, notes Pullen, and using tar runs the risk of leaching oil into the ground.
The spring is housed in the original building from 1936, which now features a new roof, windows, and doors added by Pullen in 2004. Pullen has the only key to the house. In addition, Pullen added $30,000 worth of 316 stainless steel plates to protect the spring, which are held in place by tamper-evident metal strips, which need to be cut in order to access the spring.
The water is gravity-fed from the spring through stainless steel piping into the bottling facility. Stainless steel was specifically chosen by Pullen over PVC piping, despite the much higher price point.
"Water of that quality deserves to be in stainless steel," he insists.
By law, the spring water is pure enough to be bottled without any filtration, but Summit Spring performs a basic submicron filtration to remove any trace of sand that might be in the water. In-house bacterial testing is done during every bottling. In addition, the bottling is done by masked employees behind locked doors.
"Water is a universal solvent," explains Pullen. "and as such, is very easily contaminated."
Once a year, Pullen invests close to $10,000 in extensive chemical analysis of his water, performed by outside labs. Results reveal a water of extraordinary purity with an extremely low mineral content and TDS (total dissolved solids) readings between 19-42 ppm.
In some respects, bottlers of spring water have it easy - their product comes straight from the ground, ready to go - there are no raw ingredients involved, no recipes, and if done correctly, no shelf-life or spoilage concerns. However, Summit Spring Water faces significant obstacles that are probably quite familiar to other small food & beverage processors.
Summit Spring sold around 300,000 gallons of water last year, which is no where near the spring's production capacity of 35 million gallons per year. By comparison, a well-known neighboring bottled water producer sold close to 800 million gallons of water last year. The sheer quantity of bottles produced, along with different collection and handling methods, enables competitors to price water much lower than Summit Spring could feasibly afford.
But Summit Spring Water faces even greater competition from industry monopolies held by Pepsico's Aquafina and Coca-Cola's Dasani. Establishments that carry these famous soda brands often find themselves in a position where they are pressured to also offer the accompanying bottled water brands.
Interestingly enough, neither of these brands of bottled water should technically be competing with spring water - as both Aquafina and Dasani come from municipal water supplies. The water treated and filtered using reverse osmosis, and then minerals are added.
Up against extremely low competitor price points and huge distribution channels, Summit Spring Water aims to distinguish itself through the quality and consistency of its product.
"We don't require marketing ploys or smoke and mirrors," says Pullen. "We just need to make consumers understand that Summit Spring is truly a phenomenal product."
While American consumers tend to be thoughtful and discerning when it comes to purchasing decisions, deciphering bottled water labels can be tricky. Summit Spring abides by the adage, "You should know where your water comes from." This includes a basic understanding of the difference between spring water and purified water.
"Just because there is a mountain on the label does not mean it is coming from a spring," points out Pullen.
In addition, knowing the exact source of bottled water is important. While Summit Spring comes from a single source, many brands are multi-sourced. Pullen points out that this means the water is often tanked prior to bottling (and thus runs the risk of more exposure to the elements), and sometimes, because water from different sources is mixed together, inconsistent in flavor and mineral content.
Above all, Summit Spring Water aims to protect its source and the land around it. An overwhelming 38 gallons of water per minute bubbles up naturally from the spring, and this overflow is the only water Summit Spring will collect - it will never be forcibly pumped out of the spring. Excess water is allowed to flow back into the woods.
However, despite the sustainability efforts at Summit Spring, the bottled water industry as a whole faces massive criticism by environmentally-minded consumers for its use of PET bottles.
Summit Spring has recently introduced a "retro" brown glass bottle, but Pullen notes this will be a limited edition offering. While it does have distinct benefits - the dark colored glass blocks UV and natural light from the water, and some say enables a purer, sweeter tasting product - glass packaging accrues high costs, as it involves re-tooling of equipment, careful handling, and significantly higher shipping weights.
"Right now, the bottled water industry has no better option than PET. To me, switching packaging is not the real issue," states Pullen.
Instead, Pullen is lobbying for national laws that require recycling of plastic bottles - all plastic bottles, including soda, milk and orange juice. "Bottled water containers are completely recyclable and many times reusable when they are returned to a suitable facility." Pullen feels that a national bottle bill that assigned redemption values to PET containers would keep these bottles out of landfills.
When Pullen started bottling in the fall of 2004, he was manually filling bottles and capping them by hand. After making substantial restoration investments to the spring house and the surrounding lands, including removing trees and building gravel roads, Pullen starting looking at bottling lines.
"I wanted to buy brand new, quality equipment," said Pullen. "I would rather buy something slightly smaller and new, than run the risk of buying something large secondhand."
The bottling facility at Summit Spring features two separate lines - one set up for filling five gallon bottles and the other for small bottles, 0.5 Liter thru 1.5 Liter.
Five gallon bottles are filled on a Severn Trent BabyWorks automatic washer, filler and capper. The machine washes and sanitizes bottles and then rinses them with spring water before filling. They are capped with a sanitary cap that has to be pierced by a sanitary probe in order to be opened.
The smaller bottles are gravity-filled by a six-head rotary filler from Filler Specialties. It fills two cases per minute.
Currently, the facility is bottling two days per week, and making deliveries the remainder of the week. Shipping from the spring and an additional distribution center in Berlin, New Hampshire, the water is sold at several natural and organic retail stores throughout New England.
The future of the brand
Summit Spring Water aims to grow its regional distribution, while eventually reaching high end markets in specific locations throughout California, Florida and Colorado. On the equipment side, this will involve further automating of the labeling process, as well as adding automated palletizers and cartoners to the end of the bottling line.
For Pullen, it's a matter of brand awareness. Despite the economic advances of private-labeling, Summit Spring Water is sold only under the Summit Spring brand name and will remain that way. Pullen is confident in the uniqueness and quality of his product, and is firmly committed to getting the word out to consumers.
"We are doing our part to bring consumers the most naturally pure spring water available anywhere on earth packaged in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. Water is the most essential ingredient for human existence. Consumers must do their part to investigate, scrutinize and educate themselves on the sources of water they drink."