The 10 beakers looked identical, but the judges craned their necks to examine clarity, took deep sniffs for any hint of odor, and sipped carefully from tiny cups to determine Kane County's best-tasting water.
At the annual Kane County Water Association holiday luncheon, water operators, public works employees and industry representatives all waited with bated breath to see which of the 10 communities providing samples would be this year's winner.
It was Montgomery, winning for the first time.
"This is the fruit of the labor we put in," said a visibly excited Jack Rosenstiel, utility supervisor and 23-year veteran of Montgomery's water program. He particularly pointed to the $1.3 million rehabilitation of the main plant this year.
Most of Kane County's municipalities use groundwater, and then use different methods, such as water softeners, nanofiltration and reverse osmosis, to prepare it for drinking. In Montgomery's case, the groundwater is pumped into a lime softening facility.
The taste test is an annual tradition of the water association, which formed in 1985. It's made of up members who are their community's unsung heroes, said Bill Balluff, treasurer of the group.
"The better they do, the less recognition they get," Balluff said, noting that residents simply expect safe, great-tasting water to flow from their taps.
The taste test is a way for towns to establish bragging rights and show off a little community pride, Balluff said.
"Everybody likes a competition," he said.
Each town is directed to fill a mason jar with water, then bring it in room-temperature. After the samples have been seen, smelled and tasted, their scores for odor, clarity and taste are tallied.
This year's judges included Bob Sasman, a hydrologist emeritus with the Illinois State Water Survey, Mike McCoy, former Kane County Board chair, and Jenette Sturges, a reporter with the Beacon-News in Aurora.
Sasman, with decades of experience, said it was a difficult choice because all of the water "tasted fine." He said he was certain if the taste test were repeated, there would be a different winner.
"There were minute differences," he said. "It was a lot harder than I thought it would be."
The group, which used to be made up solely of city engineers and public works employees, now includes private sector employees. Members tour each other's plants, exchange ideas and network, said outgoing president Chris Lemke, of Sugar Grove.
Montgomery will represent Kane County at the state taste test in the spring.