Scents of Adventure: Bellocq Tea Atelier
Brooklyn, New York

Scents of Adventure: Bellocq Tea Atelier

The Most Beautiful Tea in the World

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. To some, it slips into everyday life anonymously, nothing more than a familiar habit. To others it can signify the break of day, or the blanket of night. And to many, it is opulent, ceremonial and essential. Tea can be comforting or luxuriant, rushed or ritualistic. Such a modest, thoughtful thing as tea can be easy to overlook, yet it is mighty in its historical importance and ability to unearth the conducts of different cultures. So it is nothing short of a pleasure in its purest form to visit the home of Bellocq, a tea atelier that does not work to reshape the traditions of tea, but to celebrate them.

Located on an industrial stretch in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, the garlanded lair of Michael Shannon and Heidi Johannsen Stewart is accessed by a heavy wooden door.  Aside from a large iron “B” and a rusted teapot hung from a length of rope, little is given away about what lies beyond.  After ringing the bell, Michael greets us at the door; with his sharp, elegant moustache and autumnally-hued clothing, the sight is suddenly incongruous with the street.

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The main room of the salon is washed with sumptuous aubergine, while shelves of Bellocq’s famous yellow tea caddies bear down like barrels of sunlight on the back wall. Smaller tins line the tables of the salon, their fragrant contents spilling out onto little white bowls so that every bright stem, twist of fruit skin and earthy tea leaf can be seen. The whole place sings of another time, another world, and we are instantly seduced.

We enter on this gray Thursday and disappear into a world that resembles the moment just before falling asleep, a moment when anything is possible. Because in here, Michael and Heidi have created a sanctuary in which their greatest passions come to life, swirling into boiling water, coloring the place with scent and steam. To look around the room is to understand the places and experiences that shape Bellocq. Little chests appear half open on shelves sprinkled with curls of wood. Flowers burst from their glass holders, leaning in to listen. The air tinkles with buoyant violin music, framing the setting. Both Michael and Heidi deeply love tea. Love it like art. They speak of it with unapologetic passion, assuming the listener feels the same. Which, after an hour or two with them, we do.

The two met at Martha Stewart Living, Heidi in recipe development and Michael in design. They bonded over a love of tea and began buying it for one another during their separate travels. “There’s a cultural diversity to tea that is so interesting, that you don’t feel with coffee,” Michael says. “It’s so unique to culture and speaks volumes about each one.”

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It is easy to see why they gravitated toward one another. Their sentences latch together and they match one another perfectly, as much a part of the setting as the copper weighing scales or the thick wooden floorboards. “Michael and I are dreamers,” Heidi tells us. “We like to go on adventures.”

Beginning as a West London pop-up store in 2010, Bellocq soon after made its home in Greenpoint and has quietly been at work attempting to create some of the world’s most beautiful tea ever since.  Each one of Bellocq’s teas are hand-blended and packaged on-site in the production facility at the rear of the shop. In a manner that is as ritualistic as the drinking itself, Heidi and Michael comb the world in search of the best teas, spices, fruits and flowers for their creations. “Once the crops start to come out, we taste ten, twenty, sometimes thirty tea leaves,” Michael explains. “Once we find the perfect one, we buy that crop and start to blend. That could be a simple fusion of different leaves together, or a leaf combined with flowers and spices.”

Whereas most tea companies use standard leaves and supplement with synthetic flavorings, Heidi and Michael use high-grade varieties and balance them with delicate, natural ingredients. They pull down a small stack of tea cakes from the shelf to show us. These are dark, compressed blocks of tea, left for up to ten years to age. “Tea is like wine,” Michael explains. “Some varieties get better with age. These rare types really excite us. We have a tea from China that was lost for about eight hundred years and then returned in the 1980s, which we just had to bring to the store.” It is this utter commitment to their trade that has won Bellocq’s founders global veneration.

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Inside the luxuriant folds of Bellocq, tea lovers are taken on a journey. From China and Japan to Mexico and Persia, stories of ethnic ritual are told through each variety. In the suitably lavish salon, draped with velvet sofas in soft pink, antique screen doors and hanging baskets of flowers, guests are able to sit and enjoy their desired tea. With a cup in hand, a moment of peace can come if allowed. “We want people to come in, learn, and discover. People can walk in here and be completely away from life for a while,” Heidi tells us. “Tea is comforting, social, and ceremonial, but more than anything it is a moment for the senses.”

For the most part it is Heidi who develops the blends. Each one springs from her imagination, a ballad to flavor, color and sound. It is a pleasure to hear Heidi explain each, and she does so with equal levels of humor and sincerity. She hops from pot to pot, unscrewing the giant lids and plunging them under our noses. She closes her eyes and escapes into the stories, each one so considered and intricate that they seem lifted from fairytales. “There’s a poetry around it. Flavors are usually inspired by moments,” she tells us. “That moment turns into a story inside my mind, to which I then look to articulate in a blend. They go round and round in my head. It can take a while for them to materialize into flavor.”

Take The White Wolf: a blend of white tea, mint, star anise and cedar. “This is all about winter,” Heidi says. “I knew from the outset what it looked like. I had this scene in my mind, these dramatic winterscapes – the American frontier, and that really steely gray line of the winter sky. I kept thinking about riding, the hooves of the horse crunching the frozen grass, the smell of the saddle’s wet leather and how it creaks. I started to get deep, deep into it. That area of the world is so flat, and I kept thinking about how large the sky is. I wanted to pour all of this beauty and expansiveness into a tea blend. It probably sounds a bit crazy, but that was the intention.”

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Alternately the Etoile De L’Inde (Star of India), a mix of green tea, passion fruit and rose, was was created to evoke the feverishness of young love. “You know that crazy feeling when you’re first in love, when you feel rabid and sick with that lush abandon within?” Heidi asks, laughing. “That feeling when you’d run off traveling because you have all the time in the world? I just wanted that feeling in a tea; when you’re barefoot in the rain making out with somebody!”

Story after story comes pouring out and we don’t let Heidi pause. She pulls down another caddy and inhales. “This is Corazon De Cien Fuegos, full of hibiscus, lemongrass, lavender and cinnamon.” We smell it the second she opens the tin; it is an earthy, heady spice. “The idea of this was Mexico at night,” she says. “There’s this woman sitting by a bonfire.  She’s a little witchy, has absolutely no teeth and doesn’t speak. She’s making tea, a bit like a Mexican shaman. I can see the sparks coming off the top of the fire and I can hear her singing. That’s what I wanted to capture with this one.” The stories go on; from their Gypsy Caravan blend that captures a horde of travelers around a smoky fire to the White Nixon, born from a vision of “1970s America – a country club afternoon with those beautiful expansive lawns and the sprinklers waving back and forth across them. Debauchery is in the air.”  Each flavor evokes its own world, dreamt up by Heidi and Michael.

“These flavors come from characters and realms of their own,” Heidi says. “They have voices. Pretty little worlds that keep revealing themselves to me.”

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Michael listens along as each is unraveled. “You can tell when people feel connected to the tea, when they want to know the stories behind them,” he smiles. “And then sometimes, they have stories of their own. They drink the tea and have their own moments, and that’s even better.”

We scale the room, sniffing and sighing over the richest of blends. Of the straightforward teas, our favorite is the Milk Oolong, which pipes out scents of sugary popcorn and gardenia. “It’s basically like wearing Gardenia perfume to the movies,” Michael laughs. We share a cup of Heidi’s beloved Pheonix blend, which is a flurry of roasted oolong and sweet stone fruits. “Tea can be incredibly serious,” Michael remarks. “We are tireless in our sourcing, in the quality of our products. However it doesn’t need to be a terribly sober, intimidating affair.”

Heidi agrees. “That’s not necessary. You can have fun with tea, and we have fun with the blends. Hence the crazy stories! When it comes down to it, tea is really just about pleasure.”

Bellocq Tea Atelier
104 West Street, Brooklyn, NY 11222

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