The Man may be coming to rip your precious plastic straws right out of your to-go cups, but iced tea drinkers, there’s no need to fret. We’ve got a backup plan (and international culinary sensation) ready to roll for you. Rather than waste time mourning the ritual sensation of mainlining perfectly chilled caffeinated bliss via mouth tube, we’re all going to switch to – wait for it, wait for it – cheese tea.
That’s right, cheese tea. The drink is an Asian sensation, just a few years in the making, that has exploded in popularity. After conquering the eastern Pacific, cheese tea is beginning to appear on cafe menus and in specialty shops dedicated to the drink here in the states.
What depraved mind first dreamt this cheese tea up?
The original name of the drink, zhī shì chá, may betray its origin, for those in the know. The drink traces its roots back to a chain – or a couple of them, depending on who is telling the origin story – of tea shops scattered across Taiwan and mainland China. The originator appears to be a company called HeyTea, though the brand was known as Royal Tea when the drink was invented.
And people…want cheese tea? To drink?
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Tea shops literally can’t keep the product in stock. Would be patrons of HeyTea in Malaysia are often spotted waiting in line at 9:30 AM to guarantee their shot at a cheese tea when the shop opens to the public an hour and a half later. Cheese tea is an outright sensation across much of Asia, akin to the cronut mania of 2013. It’s like there’s a new iPhone model debuting every morning at these shops. The wait at one of HeyTea’s Shanghai shops was more than seven hours in October of last year. The company says it sells about 3,000 of the beverages a day in some of their shops. The average U.S. drive-thru coffee shop, for comparison, averaged 200-300 coffee-based drink sales per day in 2017.
Fine, I believe you. But what does it taste like?
When you really break down the description of cheese tea, the concept actually does become quite a bit more appealing. The bottom half of your drink is your tea. Imagine your usual iced green, black or even matcha. Feel welcome to hit it with a splash of milk, if you’re so inclined. Topping this conservative classic, though, is a frothy mixture of milk and New Zealand-style cream cheese that’s been subjected to the foaming wand of the espresso machine. Finally, salt is sprinkled atop the controversial confection. It’s more cheesecake or crème brûlée than it is Swiss or cheddar.
To truly appreciate this masterclass in layering, you need to either just drink it the old-fashioned lips-to-cup way, or through a specialty cheese tea lid that allows for generous gulps. The goal, after all, is to experience each of the three layers with every sip: crisp tea, sweet cream cheese foam and salty finish.
It sounds a bit like boba, right?
That’s probably the right comparison to make, both when it comes to measuring the trend, and for the endless flavors eventually dreamed up. And you probably don’t have to try all that hard to remember a time when you scrunched up your nose at the thought of filling up half of your cold beverage with black balls of tapioca. We all came around on boba, and I expect that we’ll all fall right in line when it comes to cheese tea.
So where can I get one?
L.A.’s Little Fluffy Head has been at the forefront of the U.S. cheese tea wave on the west coast. And for those on the east coast, Happy Lemon has cheese tea shops in New York and Boston. There are cheese tea outlets in San Diego, Seattle, and New Jersey. It’s happening. It’s really a thing. But honestly, there isn’t anything in cheese tea’s preparation that would disqualify most coffee shops from whipping up a custom batch. Make nice with the barista that takes pride in his latte art, and ask him if he’s heard about the trend.