We recently had the pleasure of visiting Heidi Johannsen Stewart and Michael Shannon of Bellocq at their tea atelier in Greenpoint. While we sampled a variety of their unique, handcrafted blends, the duo spoke with us about their love of tea, travels, and inspiration.
How did you discover your mutual interest in tea?
Heidi: We were both very passionate tea drinkers and we would go traveling and bring back teas for each other. We were perpetually bringing suitcases full of tea back and sharing it with each other along with other delicious and beautiful discoveries. We had always appreciated a very similar aesthetic or point of view, so there’s a common ground there. It was just our little thing that we did. We worked in very different areas but we always connected on tea. In fact, it’s funny – our very first conversation was about tea. Many years ago, in the little kitchen at Martha Stewart, when we both worked there. I was making some mint tea and Michael commented about how he couldn’t drink mint tea anymore. His family on his father’s side is Syrian and Lebanese, and he had had so much of it in his life. We had a laugh about that and discovered this wonderful shared passion for tea.
Michael: I actually don’t remember saying all that but our first conversation was definitely about tea!
What made you decide to start a business together?
Heidi: We always talked about doing something together. We weren’t quite sure what, but as we talked about it more and more, it seemed like tea was a venue for us in which we could materialize all sorts of interesting fantasies we had, things we wanted to create, and it opens up a world for us. It’s a world that allows for some mystery, and allows us to realize all these things in our imagination. There are lots of lovely tea brands around the world and at one point we thought maybe we would import, but then we thought, with all our backgrounds, what are we doing? My background in food and food styling gave me insight into all these different flavors, and Michael’s background in product design went into the packaging, Between my palate and Michael’s experience in product design, and my husband, Scott, who’s also a partner and works in the interior design world, we thought maybe with our skill set we should do the entire thing.
Where does the name come from?
Heidi: Well, it’s funny – of course there’s the photographer [E.J. Bellocq], whose work from the turn of the last century in New Orleans we admired, but it’s not an homage by any means. To be perfectly honest, we came up with many, many names and we both came with lists with hundreds of words. Strangely, Bellocq was on both. What we love about his work is that it was unconventional and he found beauty where people didn’t often see it. I had a book on Bellocq that was on my shelf for years, and I would always pass it and think that visually, it was a lovely word, so it’s a combination.
Your first shop was in London. What brought you out there, and then back?
Michael: Heidi’s husband Scott is also a partner, and he works in the interiors world. He was working out there on a project and told us about a beautiful space in the King’s Road for a pop-up shop. Heidi and I were still working out of her kitchen, tasting and selecting teas, and we were looking at real estate. When he called, I was in Williamsburg on Wythe, which of course is now very busy, but at that time it was pretty empty. I was having a grilled cheese and he called from London and told us to stop looking. We had to be open in two or three weeks. When we got there we had ten days to set up. We did it. It was a three moth lease and we asked to stay .They let us have it for the year. When we were in London, we shipped all of our teas directly there and were blending the teas in the shop. We weren’t doing wholesale then. When we came back we started doing wholesale, and we’re now in about 150 different stores. The whole business changed by the time we came back and it was hard for us to imagine getting back to London, even though everything was in storage and we really wanted to reopen. We do a lot in Japan, which has been really great for us. There are two little shop counters that we went and set up and designed in Tokyo and Kobe.
How did you come to choose this spot specifically. Were you always interested in this area?
Michael: No, we were interested in a place that was easy for all of us to get to, and we were really looking for a factory, not a retail store, which is why we’re on this funny street. This is where all of the tea comes in, where it’s stored, blended, packaged – everything. It had all that we needed. We took the space, divided it all up, and put the walls up. We made the showroom for our clients to come in, and it started getting press. People started asking if they could see it, and if we were a store, and we thought, well, we CAN be a store. We’re only open on weekends because things are busy during the week. Now that Greenpoint has become such a popular location we’re getting more and more customers. Ovenly, River Sticks, Achilles Heel from the Marlowe and Sons team, and the park opened up, so that’s helped a lot. We’ve been open on weekends for more than two years now and in the first year, it was mostly tourists who had read about us – people that you would never expect to see here. They’d read about it and come, but we never got local people. It wasn’t strange to see Martha Stewart show up, but it was strange to see the neighbors come in. They’re always surprised to come across it.
What do you love most about creating your unique blends, and what is it like to watch others experience them for the first time?
Heidi: Tea is wonderful. It can be a bit mysterious, a bit exotic, a bit comforting. All of our teas are interesting because the blends are stories. They start to take on their own world. With each of our blends, the story keeps developing, so it’s a funny thing – they’re little stories, and we like that. They become not just teas, but they really have their characters in this world we have here. It’s a creative outlet.
One of our favorite parts of having clients come in and sharing our teas with people face to face is that scent memory is so strong. We’ve had people come in and cry because an aroma reminds them of things and brings back memories. It touches them deeply in an emotional way. It can also be uplifting, or elicit any number of reactions. We’re very interested in that aspect of it. It’s for everyone. It brings evderyone together, and everyone has a response. We like that so much, and it’s very important to us.
Being in an urban environment, having tea is a great way to carve out a quiet little moment because it forces you to slow down for a bit. There’s a ritual to it.
Heidi: It’s not on the go. It’s definitely nice to sit down and just focus. It’s really helpful. Again with the scent and flavor, if you pay attention to it, it helps bring you together and center you a bit. Life is very busy these days, and I think for me personally, it’s helpful just to have a moment for myself. It helps me regroup, and I like that about tea.
We noticed you even have a children’s tea.
Heidi: Yes, Little Dickens. I have little ones and they like tea, and when my son was four, he helped develop that tea. We worked together to talk about what’s delicious, and the things we like to taste and smell. We would do a little blending and taste untl we came up with that. It worked out quite nicely – we love that tea. It’s an interesting tea because our clientele is very broad but we get some very serious tea drinkers – for lack of a better term, tea nerds – but they love that tea. It’s entirely disarming and very soothing. I always find that to be very interesting.
You’ve traveled a lot in your careers, and some of the ingredients for your teas are sourced from far flung places. It’s obvious travel plays a big role in your work. What are some places that really inspire you?
Heidi: We love discovery and exploration, and we bring that here as well. Flavor and scent are a wonderful place for discovery, and travel, by way of the senses. Michael and I were just in Japan. We were in Kyoto and turning every corner, something would smell so interesting, whether it was flowers, or incense – it was so overwhelming for us. We were experiencing new color palettes, sounds, scents, flavors and customs. It shakes you and keeps opening you up. That’s really important to us. I love when you’re traveling and you smell something you haven’t smelled before. It opens up your perspective. When you’re confronted with a new scent that’s not part of your culture, you don’t have scent memory for it – I love that! It’s so exhilarating and fascinating.
Michael: Kyoto, of course. We have great memories of Mexico too. Heidi and I don’t often travel together. We often have to travel individually just because there’s so much to do. She’s going back to Japan in the fall and I’ll go to India. I love working in India. There’s also a place called Anji in China, where there are bamboo forests. As you drive up you see tea fields everywhere and when you get to the top, it starts turning into bamboo forest.
When you’re sourcing your teas, what specifically are you looking for?
Heidi: We go through a very rigorous process with our sourcing. We travel to Asia annually, but cannot visit each garden every season as we source from various provinces in China, Taiwan, Japan, and India – it’s impossible for us to do that. We have great relationships with various gardens, so for instance if we are trying to find a white Chinese tea like white peony, we will taste many and keep going until we find one that captures the flavor profile that we desire. The quality has to be there. All of our teas are full leaf, so we don’t use broken leaves. Full leaf is the entire leaf or just the bud. We are using just the first two leaves and the bud. All of our teas are high elevation. Some of the mass produced teas are grown at lower elevations so they produce very quickly, so they have many harvest. For teas grown at higher elevations, the growth is slower. Slow growth produces a finer quality leaf; the nuance of the flavor is much more profound. You want the plant to work, and that can produce a finer product, in the same way grape vines that have to work harder have the potential to produce a finer wine. The processing is considered as well; an excellent tea master is essential. We source the finest teas we can procure and don’t use the fannings or the dust (broken bits). Sourcing is what we spend a great deal of our time on. We’re very dedicated to that aspect of it (and also highly caffeinated after these trials).
Michael: Definitely high elevation, single estate. We see them like wines, and you can do that with teas, more so than with coffee, because teas can hit about 70-80% of your taste buds. You can describe teas in the same ways you can describe wines. We try to offer the teas with descriptions in that manner without getting too lofty. A lot of times in the tea world, people will describe something like, “the taste of fresh bamboo!” No one knows what that tastes like. We want it to be accessible. One of the reasons we started this company was to make high level teas and luxury level blends that were accessible and not elite. It works as long as there’s a lot of education around it, so when people come into the atelier, we talk to them a lot about what we do and we try to make them as comfortable as possible because the tea world is so vast and so hard to understand if you don’t know it.
We love tea and consider ourselves avid tea drinkers, but when we walked in here, we didn’t know where to start.
Michael: Exactly. If a client comes in and doesn’t know a lot about tea or seems intimidated, we first start talking about how green teas, white teas, black teas all come from the same plant. We really start at the basic level so that people understand what they’re dealing with, and the difference between teas and herbals. Also, just the fact that someone might say, “Oh, I’ve had a Dragonwell before,” but that’s like saying you’ve had a Cabernet. There are so many different qualities, depending on what region it’s from. We’ll taste 20 or 30 to get one we like, so our gardens are not the same every year. It’s agriculture, People forget that. Things change with weather, with process, the tea master, etc. Anything can happen. When you’re dealing with this sort of thing, you need to taste a lot of teas. Most tea companies are like factories where all of them will bring their style of tea (each region has it’s own style. You could have 30 different gardens who bring their tea from this one area and they drop off their teas, and the companies will blend all of those to make one consistent flavor and sell it on the lower level market. When we say single estate, it’s like going directly to a farmer and not going to the supermarket, where everyone’s carrots are mixed up.
Your blends are really unique, and we always get a great response when we give your teas as gifts. What’s different about the way you craft your blends?
Heidi: All of our teas are proprietary. We’ve created all of the blends, and they’re unique to Bellocq. The Earl Grey of course is Earl Grey, however, what makes our tea different is that we use full leaf, high elevation, and a very, very fine base leaf, which other companies will not do (they use the fannings). They’ll use them as a vehicle for flavoring, whereas we take into account the leaf and its flavor profile. Then we blend, and we blend with only natural oils. Other companies will use flavoring. So for the Earl, we use only natural, Sicilian Bergamot, and the pure extract from that. We don’t use a synthetic flavoring. That’s why it’s not a perfumey bergamot. There’s an essence of fragrance but it’s not a flavoring. You detect the sharpness of the bergamot and its facets in the scent and the flavor.
All of our teas are hand blended and in small batches which helps with quality control and making sure each batch is as it should be. A lot of tea companies get their blends from large conglomerates that are located in Europe, which is why you might wonder why one specific tea tastes a lot like a tea from another company – they just private label.
Can you tell us a bit about some of the teas we carry in our Home Shop?
Heidi: For the Majorelle Mint, we use Chinese gunpowder green, which is lovely. The leaves are tightly rolled and have a very ashy profile, so they unfurl as they brew. We blended that and added a bit of sweet orange to it because we thought it would lift the entire blend . . . and then we kept thinking about that image of Yves Saint Laurent in his kaftan! We also drink the Siam Basil Lemongrass constantly. You can make a really delicious simple syrup with that I use in cocktails, and I cook with it. I poach chicken breasts in it. It also makes a very good iced tea.
What’s the key to brewing a perfect cup of tea?
Heidi: For brewing regular tea, the rule I use is one teaspoon per eight ounces of water, then brew according to instructions. A delicate green tea is going to want maybe 1-2 minutes, but a black tea might be 4-6. Some of our white teas want more than that. They can go up to eight minutes.
For iced tea, I usually do about two teaspoons per eight ounces of water. I want the brew a little stronger because when it’s cold, the flavor constricts. For something like the Majorelle Mint, I will brew it hot, then let it come to room temperature on the counter. Then I put it in the refrigerator. Iced tea will get cloudy if you put it hot into the cold.
When is it time to throw out a tea? Is there a suggested expiration date?
Michael: Everyone has got tea in the back of their cupboard that you don’t want to throw out because there’s something sentimental about it, and they don’t drink it but they keep it. It’s like spices. We recommend, as long as you keep your tea out of light and sealed, we recommend that from the time you buy it, it’s at its absolute best from the first 3-6 months. After that it can still be good, but it’s not going to be its best. Certain teas, like Earl Grey, can dissipate quite quickly.
Any upcoming projects you’re especially excited about?
Michael: We’ll be doing more housewares – textiles, glassware, ceramics, and a candle line. We always thought we were going to do more in that world, but we had to secure the tea line first because there’s so many moving parts in it, and there’s so much sourcing, so we thought we’d just focus on that for a few years before launching other things. We also painted ourselves into a corner with the level of quality and the style that we love so much that it’s very difficult to get that sort of refined product we want and get it right. We go to places in the same way we go to source teas, from the places where they’ve always been made, in a certain way. It’s the same with materials. We work with a lot of local cooperatives, and I love that we can still work with small groups of craftspeople. It takes a long time to get to those people.
Many thanks to Heidi and Michael for having us over and for sharing their tea with us! You can find select Bellocq blends at our Home Shop.
Link to original article: www.StevenAlan.com
Thank you Steven Alan!