Tea sommelier brings book to life at Swampscott library
By Shelley A. Sackett
Last Wednesday night, over 50 people sat and chatted in the Swampscott Library at tables set with white cloth tablecloths, teacups, tea lights and tea biscuits. Promptly at 6:30 p.m., a spry, bearded man in a colorful vest stepped behind a table adorned with a variety of artistic teapots and addressed the crowd.
“Thank you for coming to take tea with me,” said Hillel Bromberg, certified tea sommelier.
For the next 90 minutes, Bromberg talked about the history of tea, its many heath benefits and the proper (and improper) way to brew an authentic cup of tea. He also conducted a tasting of several distinctive styles of teas. “I really like tea, and it turns out I’m not alone,” he said.
The inspiration for the program came from the book, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See, which was the library’s Popular Titles Book Group selection for September.
Laurie Souza, head of circulation, had just read the book and wanted to learn more about tea. She had heard about Bromberg from other libraries and suggested to the Friends of the Library that they bring him to Swampscott. “They thought it was a great idea,” she said.
Bromberg, who lives in Newton with his coffee-drinking wife, was introduced to tea as a child. He grew up in an observant Jewish home where the family and guests enjoyed a “full-blown Shabbat dinner” every Friday night. After dinner, they would sit around for quite a while, sipping tea, eating dessert and “schmoozing.”
“We drank your basic Lipton that I usually loaded up with lemon and sugar,” Bromberg recalled. He has continued that ritual in his own home. When his son and daughter left for college, he made sure they left home with a hand-selected supply of their favorite teas.
He received his tea sommelier certification from the International Tea Masters Association. During the four-month training (one intensive weekend of study and three months of weekly online assignments), he learned about different teas from different countries. “When I started drinking tea, the whole world opened up to me,” he said.
Bromberg captivated the audience with his lively condensed version of the history of tea, peppering the fascinating chronicle with amusing tidbits such as the difference between high tea and afternoon tea, and the Lexington Tea Burning, which pre-dated the December 16, 1773 Boston Tea Party by three days.
The audience learned what is tea (white, green, yellow, oolong, black and post fermented teas, which all belong to the camellia sinensis species) and what is not tea (all fruit and herbal teas, known as tisanes).
In addition, properly steeped tea must take into account three specifics that differ with each variety of tea leaves: the amount of tea leaves in the strainer; the temperature of the water, and the amount of time the tea steeps before drinking.
Throughout the presentation, Bromberg demonstrated the proper way to brew a pot of tea, which can only be accomplished with a proper tea strainer. He brewed five different teas, including white tea, oolong tea, a pineapple flowering tea and black tea. He set his electric teakettle to different temperatures for each, and poured a taste into each participant’s white ceramic teacups.
Somehow, he magically made a small teapot stretch to accommodate all.
Next came instruction in the proper way to taste tea. Since 80% of the taste of tea is from its aroma, smelling it is an important first step. So is slurping — and the more noise the better.
One thing the mild-mannered Bromberg is unequivocal about is his abhorrence for tea bags. “They are horrible, vile and disgusting,” he said with the trace of a shudder. “They were invented in the United States by two women who tired of cleaning leaves out of pots.”
Strainers are designed to let tea leaves come to life; tea bags are designed to steep quickly with macerated, tightly packed leaves that lose their flavor. “Tea wants to stretch out,” he emphasized, as he passed around the strainers with post-steeped tealeaves as evidence.
Bromberg had just borrowed “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” from his local library when Souza contacted him to arrange the Swampscott tea tasting, so the timing was perfect. He liked the writing a lot, especially the way the author described the hard work the tea pluckers, who were almost all women, did for very little pay. “I like to make people aware of the strong and patient women who were at the very beginning of the tea making process,” he said.
Izzi Abrams, who has run book groups at Swampscott Library for over 18 years and is co-director of the library’s children’s department, was delighted that Bromberg excited the crowd with his knowledge and experience. “A program like this evening makes a book come alive. It makes it experiential,” she said.
For more information about Hillel Bromberg and his Tea Oasis business, visit http://www.teaoasisboston.com