On a recent humid afternoon, I spent over an hour attempting to find a Shanghai outpost of HeyTea. I visited a coffee shop, a cell phone store, and beauty salon. And after a frustrating 90 minutes, I gave up to eat soup dumplings in another part of the city. But I couldn’t find that venue either. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two young men carrying HeyTea’s distinct frosted plastic cups, smiling as they sucked down precisely what I was after: cheese tea.
I was on this quest after stumbling upon HeyTea via Instagram days before my trip to China. The local tea brand has catchy packaging, and refreshing-looking drinks, but it was the descriptions that got me—these chilled green- and black tea-based elixirs contained the unlikely companion of cheese blended into a creamy, silky foam cap.
@mikebagale and I spent three hours today getting lost in Shanghai on the hunt for @heyteaofficial’s cultish cheese tea. Despite the perhaps off-putting moniker, cheese tea has been a phenomenon in parts of Asia like China and Taiwan, with parched fans queuing for hours to imbibe these elusive beverages topped with a “cheese” cap. Think a slightly salty, silky cream cheese and milk foam atop fresh strawberry slush (aka strawberry cheesecake), or brûléed, covering a boba bottom. These drinks are aggressively delicious, and per the human pictured, could be served in a three Michelin-starred restaurant. #shanghai # A post shared by Kat Odell (@kat_odell) on Jun 16, 2018 at 4:12am PDT
Cheese tea originates in Taiwan, but it was Chinese entrepreneur Nie Yunchen who, in 2012, launched a tea café in southern China named RoyalTea. It quickly became known for its iced tea–based beverages, flavored with everything from fresh strawberries to Oreo cookies, some flecked with fat black tapioca pearls. But what separated RoyalTea from the country’s ubiquitous milk tea shops was the thick and frothy topping anointing each drink, made from a savory-sweet blend of cheese imported from New Zealand plus milk.
“Tea is still the preferred beverage in China,” says Marcel Kofler, food and beverage director of Mandarin Oriental, Pudong in Shanghai. And cheese tea “fits into the same phenomena of the many types of bubble teas,” he explains, adding that the unsung pairing of two familiar ingredients makes customers “curious and inquisitive.” And while cheese tea doesn’t sound like it should make sense, it really does. The cheese’s subtly savory, salty notes complement the tea’s sweet and fruity nature, and the topping’s overall richness counters any of the tea’s bitterness, yielding a highly palatable modern take on tea.
Four years after its debut, Yunchen rebranded RoyalTea into HeyTea, and he now commands around 70 outlets throughout China praised by dedicated fans, who often line up for hours to try them.
A worldwide trend hits the States
Cheese tea spread quickly throughout Asia, from China to Tokyo, Hong Kong to South Korea and within the last year has hit the United States, with domestic operators adding bespoke twists.
Friends Tian Fu and Damon Wang launched Pasadena, California’s Prolece Tea six month ago, and Fu cites the proliferation of third-wave coffee as a key factor in the growth of specialty teahouses. “More young people have started to put [similar] attention on traditional tea, some trying to make it in a new way,” he explains of the increasing number of modern tea cafés implementing sophisticated coffeehouse technology and gadgetry—like Japanese glassware brand Hario’s myriad French press–esque vessels designed specifically for tea, and the pricey, U.S.-made BKON brewing system—to brew better, and more unique, beverages.
While the United States has housed cafés selling milk tea drinks reconstituted from powders since the 1990s, the contemporary version favors fresh, premium ingredients, thoughtfully sourced teas, and unique constructions, like cheese caps. “We focus on the quality of all the material from the tea to the fruit,” says Fu.
Jenny Zheng, also based in Los Angeles, was even earlier to the domestic cheese tea game, launching Little Fluffy Head Café, a dessert tea shop, one year ago. She sees the developing cheese tea movement as an offshoot of both Asia’s milk tea trend, and the more recent sea salt latte influx, which hit Los Angeles about a decade ago when Taiwanese bakery chain 85°C landed in Southern California, introducing lattes topped with a salty, foamy cap. “I believe it’s what inspired cheese tea,” she says.
Though HeyTea doesn’t fully disclose its cheese cap recipe, both Fu and Zheng in the United States emphasize that their iterations incorporate different types of cheese depending on the beverage. While Fu tops his rose-green tea with a cream cheese–based cap, he blends mascarpone into a cover for his tiramisu milk tea. Zheng, too, incorporates cream cheese into a blanket for some of her drinks, like peach oolong tea, while others call for cheddar. Both blend the cheese with ingredients like cream, milk, salt, and sugar.
It makes sense for cheese tea to take hold in one of the United States’s largest cities nearest to Asia, but the trend is spreading throughout the country. Nine-month-old Brew’s Lee Tea Station in San Antonio follows a similar recipe to Zheng, likewise building its tea topping with local cheddar, in addition to local heavy cream, raw cane sugar syrup, and salt. “When we first tasted cheese tea in Taiwan,” says co-owner Frances Lee, “we immediately knew we could make a better and tastier version.” That lead her to create what she calls a cream brûlée cap. It’s “similar to a cheese cap, but is brûléed on top to enhance the aroma and give it a different texture and caramelized flavor,” she explains. Guests can add it to drinks like taro coconut milk tea or a matcha latte. And though Brew’s Lee claims to have invited the brûlée cap, HeyTea serves a similar drink under the name Brûlée BoBo Tea, which is essentially a drinkable riff on the classic French dessert laced with tapioca pearls, crowned with a caramelized sugar cheese cap.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese boba tea shop Tapio hit Charleston four years back, but it was only last March that owners AJ and Terry Hung tested cheese tea. They currently serve four flavors, like oolong lychee and honey black tea, dressed with a creamy hat made from cream cheese, shredded mozzarella, condensed milk, heavy cream, sugar, and sea salt. Terry describes their take as a “frothy head, sort of like whipped cream on a Frappuccino.”
From traditional milk tea to sea salt lattes to cheese tea, the evolution of the teahouse continues. As Kofler puts it, “There is no limit to new creations with different textures and flavors.”