When you think of topping stuff with cheese, what delicious things pop into your head? A juicy cheeseburger? Gooey nachos piled high? A slice of pizza with melty mozzarella? Or, maybe even piping hot poutine–that Canadian cult classic French fries snack crowned with squeaky cheese curds? Whatever you’re imagining, chances are it’s not cheese on tea, right? Because why? Well, based on a recent beverage craze out of China called cheese tea–yes, cheese tea–lots of people want it, and, judging from the hours long lines, they absolutely love it.
First off, what is cheese tea (or naigai cha in Chinese)? Essentially, it comprises of any chilled, flavored-tea, usually a milk tea (you know, the type that’s commonly swimming with tapioca pearls aka boba), and a thick cheese foam, which is the star of the show.
The cheese foam is sort of like a mascarpone but lighter. The topping is made of cream cheese, whipping cream, cream, sugar, salt, then whisked to a foamy lather. One cheese tea shop in China is known to use melted gouda as the cheese base, which would add a savoriness to the foam.
Once the foam, about an inch thick, is floating like a fluffy cloud above your tea, you need to follow strict instructions to properly experience the cheese tea. First, do not use a straw. Second, do not mix the foam into the beverage. Finally, tilt the cup at an angle, 40 degree is suggested by the HEYTEA shop in China, and let the liquid push some of the foam into your mouth. Ideally, you should be getting a distinct taste of the tea and the foam separately.
There is a pleasant subtle saltiness to the cheese tea that’s unexpected. After a few sips, the drink may remind you of a cheesecake but in liquid form. Yeah, weird but quite good. The other thing to know is that cheese tea isn’t a beverage you should slowly consume, you need to drink it relatively fast so the foam doesn’t dissolve into the tea. Compartmentalizing the flavors is the key to cheese tea.
Cheese tea’s origin is traced to Guangzhou, China, where tea shops offering the unique concoction began selling it only as recently as 2015. Different shops have called firsties as far as who invented cheese tea. HEYTEA and LiHO are two that claim to have started the burgeoning trend which has just now premiered in U.S. tea shops after catching fire in East and Southeast Asian markets. A Japanese tea stand called Chizu also claims to be the drinks creator.
Regardless of who dreamt up cheese tea, Asian teens and millennials don’t seem to care and are standing in queues upwards of five hours long at HEYTEA shops in Guangzhou just to place an order and waiting another hour to get their hands on the sweet and salty drink. Other shops offering cheese tea are enjoying similar demand.
In the U.S., according to Food & Wine, the first place to offer cheese tea is a shop in Queens called Happy Lemon back in spring 2016. While over on the west coast, Los Angeles’ first cheese tea specialist is called Tan-Cha and opened in Rowland Heights in April with a new location launched in San Gabriel in July. A Tan-Cha employee explained that copycat competitors are already selling their own versions of cheese tea. In the blistering hot food scene of Downtown L.A., a cheese tea shop called Little Fluffy Head Cafe is slated for an August 30 opening, positioning its brand of cheese tea for a very food-centric, mainstream clientele.
Tan-Cha tea shop’s founders come from Guangzhou and is yet another group claiming cheese tea as its baby. Tan-Cha’s menu has a clear emphasis on its cheese tea selections, although it offers boba drinks too. Furthermore, with Tan-Cha’s competition, locally and abroad, also shifting their focus from boba to cheese tea, could we be witnessing the birth of a new beverage trend? Will we be saying bye-bye to boba? Or is it too early to call? Only your taste buds will decide.
Eddie Lin is a Los Angeles-based food blogger and restaurant critic. His blog Deep End Dining was founded in 2004. He has appeared as a food judge on the shows MasterChef, Knife Fight, Top Chef and many more.