Taking Time for Tea

Based in Brooklyn, Bellocq Tea Atelier is a small, tea company founded to elevate the quality and appreciation of tea. I zoomed over to Brooklyn, New York, to find this hidden gem and learn more about what makes a fine cup of tea.

There's nothing more British than a cup of tea, and according to the UK Tea and infusions association, we brew 100 million cups of tea every day. Made fashionable in England by Charles II's wife Catherine of Briganza in the 17th century, tea gradually overtook ale as the beverage of choice. By the end of the 18th century, milky sweet tea was warming the cockles of people from all social classes. What started as a refined ritual with silver implements and precise etiquette has become a homely comfort using mass-produced teabags brewed in a mug. We no longer appreciate the complexity of this cup of 'tee' from China, the health benefits of these precious leaves or the therapeutic benefits of making time for tea, of savouring the taste and taking it slowly. In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City, however, change has been brewing for some time. Bellocq Tea Atelier does things differently. They are taking the time to make a proper cup of tea. I caught up with co-founder Heidi Johannsen Stewart to learn more about fine tea as a product and a practice.

I meet Heidi virtually in her store in a quiet corner of Greenpoint. It's getting dark here, but the morning in New York is in full swing, and Bellocq Tea Atelier looks warm and inviting on this cold winter morning. Lush with orchids and plants, candles gently flickering, rows of sunny yellow canisters of tea line the aubergine walls. The look is a simple and organic luxury, and the space reflects the ethos of their business and the product perfectly. You may find this tea emporium by accident if you are lucky, but this is a destination store that offers a wealth of tea knowledge and a sip of quiet luxury.

Former food editor and stylist Heidi Johannsen Stewart co-founded Bellocq Tea Atelier 11 years ago when small, fine tea companies were rare. I wondered why they chose tea. What inspired them about this humble brew?

"There were not so many smaller businesses as there are now in the tea world, especially here in the states. It was coffee, coffee, coffee, but it was the tea for us. We like tea, enjoy tea, we like exploring tea, and we travelled a lot. So it was something that we had in common. We felt that there was inherent poetry to tea. That said, we also wanted to create the product that we wanted to buy that we wished was on the market. We wanted to take high-grade leaf leaves, and in addition to offering them in their pure form, we wanted to blend them thoughtfully, not using a lower grade leaf and putting a synthetic flavour on top of that. We wanted to elevate the experience. It was this wonderful portal for discovery."

Since founding Bellocq, Heidi has made connections with gardens and growers worldwide, collecting knowledge that she shares with her clients. She learned the varieties of tea leaves and how the terrain, cultivation, and processing affect the taste.

 "We cultivate a close relationship with the majority of our gardens and the many people involved within the supply chain. Our relationships and shared mutual support are vital to the success of all involved. Most people do not realise, which was interesting to us as well, that green tea and black tea and white tea, it's all Camellia sinensis. There are different varietals, of course, but the differences between terroir and tradition and various cultures, you know, the cultivation and processing, make the teas what they are. There is a great variety in breadth. So much depth to explore. We always know that our job is one of education."

But it's not just about horticulture and science. Drinking tea for Heidi is a mindful ritual, a process that not only heals the body but invigorates and replenishes the soul too. Bellocq wants to transport the client from the stress of everyday life.

"Our shop is beautiful. We wanted to provide this beautiful experience, an elevated experience. We want them to walk in the door and be completely transported. And we genuinely always wanted it to be a gift to the client: a gift and a transporting and nourishing experience to explore. And so we have a long table where people can open and smell the caddies, it's a very sensory experience. There is something about engaging all the senses that really brings you into your body and grounds you. It makes you very present. The olfactory senses are connected to ancient parts of the brain. So a lot of memories come up too. It's interesting to observe."

Mindfulness, being in the moment, is about appreciating the finer details of our daily experience. Drinking a cup of tea is a common daily habit but one that can be elevated by the quality of the leaves we brew and the rituals we attach to the process. Bellocq sells a gorgeous array of accruements for making tea designed to improve the whole sensory experience. From Japanese copper kettles to hand-crafted tea strainers, every object is chosen for its excellent craftsmanship and beauty.

"We are curious, inquisitive explorers by nature and delight and celebrate the well-crafted products and traditions of artisans around the world. Bellocq is extremely fortunate to work with a unique global supply chain of gardens and craftsmen. We like to provide inspiration for our clients. That feeling when you see something, and you have that emotional connection. We like to call it the wish, when you catch your breath a little bit, or you feel that quickening of excitement in your chest and I always loved it because it was that feeling of connection."

We drink tea so regularly that we forget it has health benefits and healing properties.

What are the benefits of good quality teas?

  "Tea is comforting and pleasurable, providing companionship, hydration and nourishment. The leaves are loaded with polyphenols, and depending upon the preparation, may provide protection against certain types of cancer. Tea also nourishes the microbiome, and the antioxidant L-theanine may help reduce stress."

With many people no longer drinking alcohol or looking to reduce their consumption, complex and interesting teas are an affordable alternative.

"It's nice to give ourselves a break; it's nice to give ourselves a reset, obviously after the indulgences of the holiday. Tea is really nuanced. It's hydrating, and it's nice to give ourselves some pause. And January is a wonderful opportunity to go try it without having to commit to grand resolutions that are hard to maintain."

Bellocq is a holistic business, not simply motivated by the bottom line but actively seeking to be a responsible and supportive member of their wider community.

I notice that you donate to women's charities - how important is giving back, and how do you do this?

"It will take collective action to facilitate positive change within our local communities as well as those abroad; the challenges are complex and urgent. We work with a number of incredible organisations whose tireless work provides invaluable support. They include programs to empower domestic violence victims, LGBTQ+ suicide prevention, civil rights advocacy, and Native American economic development. We're a small business but believe it is our responsibility to participate authentically in response to these larger issues. We are working toward integrating further programming within our framework. We will always be striving to effect positive advocacy and change."

I wondered what 2022 will bring from Bellocq? What's next?

"This year we are investigating the concepts of nourishment and restoration, and exploring how to successfully integrate restorative practices into the framework of our lives. Personally, I have experienced depletion and burn out - running a business, raising a family, running a home (and lockdown) can leave one running on fumes. Our lives are a collection of day to day details and habits, and we will examine how they serve us, determine what is necessary and perhaps, become a bit more discerning in the process. I believe this exploration, further informed by the Bellocq aesthetic, will illuminate much of what we do from here."

Everyone in the UK has their 'cup of tea'. What's yours, and how do you enjoy/make it?

"My current cup is matcha, which I enjoy in the koicha style (thick). At other times, I might find myself focused on various oolong varietals and also love lapsang souchong, always."

It was a pleasure to chat to Heidi and to get a glimpse of the sanctuary that is Bellocq (if only virtually). As I write this, over 3,000 miles away from their Brooklyn store, I can confirm that a cup of their tea is a small but intense pleasure indeed. From opening the satisfyingly weighty canister to the first heady sniff and sip of the brew, it's a simple ritual I'll be indulging in to keep the winter blues at bay.

I'd like to thank Heidi for taking time out of her busy day to share her passion and knowledge with me. To shop Bellocq tea VISIT.