The Brander - Bellocq: Tea Artisans

The Brander - Bellocq: Tea Artisans

Michael Shannon and Heidi Johannsen Stewart have been friends for years and share the same sense of style as well as a great passion for tea. At Bellocq Tea Atelier, located in the industrial neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn, they have created a magical world to display their exceptional teas with otherworldly romantic appeal.

But for the raw exterior of the erstwhile pencil factory by the East River creating a rough urban backdrop, you could almost think you had stumbled into a fairytale. Rustic furniture made from recycled wood, venetian-style stucco walls, draped fabrics, hanging mosses and ferns. All staged in a Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro setting. Aubergine-colored walls set off the yellow tea containers displayed on the shelves. Heidi Johannsen Stewart stands at the counter, expertly preparing thimble-sized teacups. She appears as ethereal as the delicate glass cups she is handling. Bellocq co-founder Michael Shannon is clearly more of a dervish, as he whirls around the tea atelier energetically. Soon we are seated on faded rose-colored velvet cushions in the corner of the tasting room and sipping "Pu-Erh", a specially fermented tea from the Chinese province of Yunnan. It has a strong, earthy taste. Heidi Johannsen Stewart crumbles a dark, flat cake – "Pu-Erh is steamed before it is formed into this shape" – on the coffee table. "This room was inspired by a classic Arabic home, where you have these sofas facing each other and people are reading poetry and are drinking tea," says Michael Shannon while inhaling the aroma rising from the steaming cup of freshly brewed Pu-Erh. "It is a place to relax and enjoy. It is absolutely non-commercial. There is nothing for sale here."

You need to see the product on the shelf, and it looks beautiful. You need to hold it in your hands and it feels beautiful, and then it needs to smell good and taste good. It has to make you feel good. Then we have done what we set out to do. If any of this fails along the way, it would not be successful.

The founders of Bellocq met while they were working together at Martha Stewart’s lifestyle and media buisness: Heidi as a food editor, food stylist and recipe creator for Martha Stewart Living, and Michael as a product designer for the company. "We were always traveling around the world and were buying tea for each other," Michael explains. This little ritual ignited the idea for the business, and when Heidi's husband, interior designer Scott Stewart, who designed the London store for the US retail chain "Anthropologie", told them that a space was temporarily available on King's Road, they seized the opportunity. "So we opened a tea store in London," Michael Shannon says, as if this bold venture miles away from home were the most natural thing in the world. "Which was not how it felt at all," he says dispelling our suspicions immediately. "It felt pretty scary to start with." But the tea aficionados decided that this was their chance to take on the niche for teas that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Full leave teas at the top of the market with all natural high-level ingredients. They knew that regular tea brands in stores are managed by large companies interested mainly in selling large quantities – who then package their teas more or less attractively, depending on the buyer. Bellocq aimed to be different: an artisan enterprise that offers complete solutions for the entire production chain, starting with purchasing, on to formulating tea blends and packaging, up to the décor in the store. The pop-up store in London gave the young entrepreneurs an opportunity to develop and establish their brand, despite not having a detailed master plan. "London was a spontaneous decision." The business evolved organically from there," says Heidi Johannsen Stewart.

Our range doesn't offer a selection of Darjeelings or Earl Greys. We only carry one of these types of tea: the best one we could find.

Small bowls with dried leaves are arranged before us. Plain, unadulterated, whole-leaf black teas. White and green teas. Oolongs. The Bellocq blends come with beguiling names such as "Kikuya", "The White Wolf", "The Queen's Guard" or "L'Etoile de l'Inde." We see yellow chamomile heads, pink rosebuds and blue cornflowers, and discern the scent of lemon grass, cardamom pods, peppermint, lavender, sage and ginger. Fantasies and memories have flowed into these tea blends. "Le Hammeau" for example is meant to evoke a stroll through a wild flower field. "With the sun shining through, warm and soft, making you feel light-hearted, but grounded at the same time," Heidi Johannsen Stewart recites while pouring the dark-gold infusion into the diminutive cups. The blends are created intuitively, much in the way of a master perfumer whose nose instinctively knows which fragrances will work together. Sometimes the process is very fast, sometimes it takes a couple of weeks. As intuitively as the Bellocq style itself develops, with one thing leading to another. The shop's interior furnishing was constructed out of recycled timber from the salvage yard. by the style and tea experts themselves. The choice to paint the walls a dark aubergine was another harmonious decision. "As soon as Scott mixed the color, we both instantly knew that the labels for the tea caddies had to be yellow." They named their company after photographer Ernest J. Bellocq from New Orleans, who in 1912 published style-setting nude portraits of prostitutes from the red-light district Storyville. "We both like the beauty of his images very much," Heidi Johannsen Stewart explains. Though probably of equal importance is the fact that the letters of the name are visually pleasing. All the same, the name "Bellocq Tea Atelier" is only featured in a minute font at the bottom edge of the label. With understated charm, it seems more a recommendation for style and quality. "If you buy a product, you take possession of it. It belongs to you and becomes something very personal. That's the sensation we want to convey."

We’re very much tea people, but we’re also about lifestyle. We want to open the experience up to everybody. We try to take all the snobbery out of tea.

After a year in London, the pop-up tea store pulled up stakes and moved into the former pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It has limited opening hours for a private clientele only. Coinciding with their move, the Bellocq founders began concentrating on wholesaling; in the meantime, Bellocq tea blends are available in selected stores in the US, Japan, Mexico, Canada, China and England. A new client segment has developed made up of restaurants seeking to build up a new gastronomical experience based on tea. "The same way it happened for coffee with small-scale roasting plants and specially trained baristas. Now the time has come to create the same appreciation for tea," Michael Shannon says with conviction. "There are so many other exciting things that can be done with tea. Tea parties, tea cocktails, or even cooking with tea."

Heidi Johannsen Stewart and Michael Shannon look on Bellocq as a self-propelling vehicle taking them on a journey with an open end. "We want to evolve, explore new possibilities and experiment with them," says Heidi Johannsen Stewart. They now started working with glass and ceramics to create tea services. But that is just the beginning. Where the journey will lead doesn't concern either of them overly much. As long as it remains just as spontaneous as the decision to take on the adventure in London. They have just one proviso: "Bellocq should always retain a dash of mystique for us and our clients."

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