Hillel Bromberg lifts a small white ceramic cup—the kind you might find at any local Chinese restaurant—to his mouth. He takes a big, extremely noisy slurp of tea. Hesitantly, I follow suit, slurping my first mouthful as daintily as I can. "I feel so self-conscious!" I say, laughing.
"Oh, it’s great," Bromberg replies. "It’s great when I have a whole roomful of people going"—and he makes a huge slurping sound.
The Tea Sommelier
We’re sitting at the kitchen table in Bromberg’s charming home in West Newton, where he lives with his wife Catherine and their pet tortoise, Maya. Bromberg is teaching me how to taste tea; much like wine tasting, there’s a process to follow. The first step: examine and smell the dry tea leaves before they even touch water. Once the leaves are wet, Bromberg urges me to sniff them again.
"You’ll see they smell completely different," he says. He’s right. The dry tea leaves smell mildly earthy, but when they’re wet, the aroma is like damp clay. We’re tasting mei li shan, a green tea from the jin xuan cultivar grown in China.
Once the tea is brewed and poured, we observe its color, a pale greenish brown. The liquor comes in shades that range from translucent yellow to deep emerald to inky reddish black, depending on the tea. We take another sniff, and then we slurp. "Ideally, I want to hear you drinking the tea, because most flavors are actually aroma," explains Bromberg. "So, when you drink tea, just like with wine or scotch or anything else, you want to kind of splash it around in your mouth, because different parts of the tongue and mouth have different taste receptors… it kind of kicks those flavor molecules up into your nasal passages."
"There’s a bit of floral," I say, describing how the mei li shan tastes. "It’s not quite as bright as jasmine, and I’m not tasting much bitterness." Bromberg nods and tells me I have a good palate. "Yes!" I exclaim, making a victorious pumping motion with my fist. If I ever decide to pursue a career in competitive tea tasting, I’m off to a good start.
Bromberg makes his living mostly as a contract writer for nonprofit organizations. He also owns Tea Oasis, through which he offers public and private tasting sessions. As a tea sommelier certified by the International Tea Masters Association, Bromberg is able to pursue his passion for one of the world’s most popular beverages and educate the public about its virtues. "People talk about [tea] as a very affordable luxury because you can take a bunch of leaves and you can use them over and over again," he says. "You’ll see as we do a few more steeps of this how the leaves kind of unfold, and the more they unfold, the more water can come in contact with the leaves, and that extracts the oils."
An advanced tea-ching session
According to Bromberg, if the tea is good quality, you can get anywhere from two to 15 steeps out of the same leaves. With every steep, the tea’s qualities change, so it tastes different each time. "That’s the fun part of doing a tasting," Bromberg remarks. "You can really focus in on individual characteristics."
There are six broad categories of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong, black (which, in China, is called red tea) and post-fermented tea (such as pu-erh). While there are many different types of tea in the world—estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000—all tea comes from one plant: camellia sinensis.
"There are two things that make… all those different kinds of tea," explains Bromberg. "One is terroir—all the environmental factors: mountain, valley, humidity, sunlight, how much rain, days of sunshine, minerals in the soil, all that stuff. And the other big element is processing." He notes that high tea season starts now, in spring, "because you have the freshest newest tea leaves starting to grow" in China and India. Combined, both countries produce most of the world’s tea, although it’s grown in about 45 countries, including about 15 states in the U.S.
Depending on when you pluck the leaves, what part of the plant you pluck and how often you do it (each round of plucking is called a "flush"), the taste of the tea will vary. After being picked, the tea is dried (called "withering"), and depending on how long it’s allowed to oxidize, it will fall under one of the six categories of tea. For example, white tea isn’t oxidized at all, while black tea is 100 percent oxidized. Heat is used to stop the oxidation process (called "fixing"), and the way this is done—by roasting in China, by steam in Japan—will also affect how the tea tastes. If you’ve ever had a smoky lapsang souchang, you may not have realized that what lends it so much flavor is how the tea master roasts it over burning pine needles and branches.
Other variables include the temperature of the water and the amount of time you let it steep. I sheepishly admit to Bromberg that I dislike being served tea that has steeped for several minutes, preferring instead to steep it lightly in order to avoid bitterness caused by excess tannins. He nods in agreement; how you take your tea is a deeply personal thing, and there’s no one right way to do it.
As we continue our tasting, I become mesmerized by the range of flavors in each tea: the grassy sweetness of the Japanese sencha, the barnyard aroma of the red jin jun mei, and the toasted floral notes of the dong ding oolong, which Bromberg presents during a brief gongfu tea ceremony. I observe to Bromberg that making tea is meditative. "Very much so," he agrees. "To my mind one of the greatest benefits of tea… is it forces you to slow down, even for just a few minutes."
Additional health benefits of tea include links to reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, lower cholesterol and higher bone density. "Tea was originally medicinal," Bromberg explains. "In time, it moved over into the realm of ‘drink,’ but it’s no coincidence its first big proponents were Buddhist monks."
Tea has been cultivated for approximately 4,000 years. It’s the second most popular beverage in the world (the first is water), and has had a lasting impact on science, history and culture. Bromberg claims that, unlike coffee, tea offers a longer caffeine buzz with a slower drop off, which creates an extended state of "relaxed alertness."
Despite the increasing popularity of coffee shops throughout New England and the rest of the country, there isn’t much of a tea culture in Boston. "Sometimes I think that once we threw it in the harbor, we were done with it," Bromberg jokes. "My long-term dream is to open up a tea café where people can sit and enjoy really fine teas in a nice environment and learn about them."
While this may bring up visions of elegant ladies in stuffy parlors sipping fragrant brews from porcelain cups with raised pinkies, that’s far from what Bromberg envisions. His mission is more laid back, open-minded and egalitarian in nature. “Tea isn’t fussy, complicated or difficult to do,” he remarks. "There’s a lot of great tea out there that’s not in a bag. And tea culture is fascinating."
"So, do you ever drink coffee?" I venture to ask. Bromberg smiles, shakes his head and says, "I haven’t had a cup of coffee in over twenty years. I don’t miss it." Not for all the tea in China.
Follow Amanda on Twitter @amandabalagur.