Originally published on lifeandthyme.com
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, the tea atelier that does not work to reshape the traditions of tea, but celebrate them. Located on an industrial stretch in Greenpoint, you enter the garlanded lair of Michael Shannon and Heidi Johannsen Stewart through a heavy wooden door, little giving away what lies behind it but a giant iron ‘B’ and a rusted teapot hanging on a piece of rope. After ringing the bell, Michael greeted us at the door, suddenly incongruous on the street with his sharp, elegant moustache and autumnal-hued clothing. The main room of the salon is washed with sumptuous aubergine, with shelves of Bellocq’s famous yellow tea caddies bearing down like barrels of sunlight on the back wall. Smaller tins line the tables of the salon, their fragrant insides spilled out onto little white bowls so that every bright stem, curled fruit skin and earthy tealeaf can be seen. The whole place sings of another time, another world, and we are instantly seduced by it.
First beginning as a pop-up store in West London in 2010, Bellocq soon made its home in Greenpoint and has quietly been at work creating the world’s most beautiful tea ever since. We knocked on their door one grey Thursday, and disappeared into a world that resembled moment just before you fall asleep, when anything is possible. Because in here, Michael and Heidi have created a sanctuary where their greatest passions come to life and swirl 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, decedent in its framing of 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 way. Which, after an hour or two with them, we did.
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 which is so interesting, which you don’t feel with coffee.’ Michael says, ‘It’s so unique each culture and speaks volumes about each one.’ It is easy to see why they gravitated towards each other. 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.’
Every one of Bellocq’s teas are hand-blended and packaged onsite in the production facility at the back. In a manner that is as ritualistic as tea 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 10, 20, sometimes 30 tealeaves.’ 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 compensate with synthetic flavorings, Heidi and Michael use high-grade varieties and balance them with delicate, natural ingredients. They pulled 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 800 years, and 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.
Inside the sumptuous folds of Bellocq, you are taken on a journey. From X and X to X and X, the stories of ethnic ritual are told through tea. With a cup of tea in-hand, a moment of peace can come upon you if you let it. It is a chance to engage with yourself, if only for a minute or two. ‘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 comes up with flavours. Each one springs from her imagination, a ballad to flavour, color and sound. It is a pleasure to hear Heidi explain them all, 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 behind the flavours, each one so considered and intricate that they seem lifted from fairytales. ‘There’s a poetry around it. Flavours are usually inspired by moments.’ She tells us, ‘That moment turns into a story inside my mind, 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 grey 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…’ Or take their Etoile De L’Inde (Star of India), a mix of green tea, passion fruit and rose, which 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 says, laughing, ‘That feeling where you’d run off travelling, 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; 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 and on, from their Gypsy Caravan blend that captures a horde of travellers 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 flavour ushers up 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.’ Michael listen along with us as each blend 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 straight-up teas, our favorite was the Milk Oolong, which piped 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, 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.’ ‘That’s not necessary.’ Heidi agrees, ‘You can have fun with tea, and we have fun with the blends. Hence the crazy stories!’