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For a tea lover, the arrival of Bellocq Tea Atelier to Greenpoint, Brooklyn's western shores is intriguing. In an economic climate where serious tea shops are dwindling, what will this recent London transplant to the banks of industrial Brooklyn offer (besides, apparently, dozens upon dozens of intriguing custom blends)?
Upon finding one's way to the almost-unmarked door of Bellocq's Friday-Saturday-only showroom, understanding is almost immediate: as a front-end to their wholesale and online tea business, owners Heidi Johannsen Stewart and her business partners Michael Shannon and Scott Stewart have created a feeling very specific to the teas they purvey. It's less like a food establishment than a rustic salon in which to discuss and experience tea (with an emphasis on the rustic—horseback riding is referenced more than once during my visit, including as a flavor note.)
And the teas themselves—from expectedly earthy pu-erhs to the woodsy custom blends to the selections of pure (unblended) teas—all lilt towards a particular profile of leathery, mushroomy, organic (in the truest meaning) flavors.
But it's the in-house blends, created by Heidi Stewart, that make up the backbone of the boutique (and by boutique I mean you can buy real fur tea cozies that look like Russian hats, yes I do.) From a background in New York restaurants and food styling, blending came instinctively to Stewart. "It's almost like creating perfume. Some things want to work together—they ask to go together." For Stewart, those things might include the passionfruit, rose, green tea and marigold of her "Etoile de L'Inde"blend, or perhaps the juniper and fir tip black tea blend "Noble Savage".
Their blending is based on a respect for the original teas
Stewart stresses that their blending is based on a respect for the original teas, rather than used to mask low-quality teas with scent or disguise. They source their own teas (sometimes abandoning a tea for an entire season if they do not prefer it that particular harvest), and continue to build farm relationships which inspire their blends. Though they're clearly influenced by British tea culture (Stewart herself is addicted to "Bellocq Breakfast"), the world of fine Parisian blends is their muse as well. As well, of course, as the tea.
"We create with the base leaf in mind. It's not just a base for some synthetic flavor, we're using botanicals to complement the spirit of the tea leaves themselves," says Stewart, noting that the botanical ingredients used for blending are sourced from all over—farmers they know, people they meet. Which is no surprise—Stewart and in-house tea expert Ravi Kroesen are eager to talk and share, and the shop has a casual linger-and-sniff-and-taste vibe, with no retail packages to paw through. You have to get right up into the teas, some of which they are not at all afraid to delightedly describe to a customer as smelling "gamey". (There's a pink-veloury lounge adjacent, but sadly we are not invited back to down a few champagne flutes of "White Nixon" blend.)
And whether you think blends are your thing or not, there's no doubt they're innovative and sensitively conceived: the at-first startling "White Wolf" is so cedary and anise forward you worry you'll lose the white tea beneath, but as the tea opens up each constituent part arrives on your palate in its own time. There's the black currant, spearmint, star anise, tea, cedar. Herbal blends, like the "chocolate-kissed Rooibos" are a little on the daring side as well, and don't forget to sniff the "Charleston" blend and get lost deciding whether it's tea or perfume.
Pure teas are of good quality as well, from their small selection of oolongs I sampled a dry-honeyed, stone fruity Phoenix oolong, delicately flavored with an almost elliptical body and a slightly blush-colored liquor. Their Dragonwell eschews the nuttiness usually associated to the classic green tea, while Kroesen is a particular fan of the Ali Shan oolong.
Though Bellocq is new to the off-the-beaten path landscape it's recently inhabited (its previous London pop-up is currently mothballed for future considerations), the store is already building out further, making room and plans for more tea wares, retail space, and—if Kroesen gets his dream—a pu-erh cave.
Posted by Liz Clayton, November 15, 2011 [Photos: Liz Clayton]
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York.