Tea topped with cheese foam has been stuck on the cusp of trending stateside
“Cheese tea? What’s that?”
Mention it to anyone who’s hearing about it for the first time and you’ll likely get a scrunched-up nose and a look of confusion. Perhaps even a shake of the head. To many Americans, the combination of tea and cheese sounds downright unappetizing. But, as any cheese tea purveyor will tell you, cheese tea tastes better than it sounds. In fact, the drink isn’t that different from bubble tea, which is now firmly entrenched in the mainstream. And given cheese tea’s popularity in Asia, as well as the successful migration of other Asian desserts (like matcha-flavored sweets and shave ice) to major U.S. markets, cheese tea should be on its way to making it big in America. So what’s taking so long?
Cheese tea is the name for cold tea (usually green or black tea, with or without milk) topped with a foamy layer of milk and cream cheese and sprinkled with salt. The drink is sweet, like boba, but has a savory finish. Using a straw is prohibitive to getting enough of that tangy cream overlay, so the method of sipping it from the top of the cup at a 40- to 45-degree angle is integral to enjoying cheese tea. Shops that specialize in cheese tea, like international franchises Happy Lemon and Gong Cha as well as independent shops like Steap in San Francisco, Little Fluffy Head in Los Angeles, and Motto in Pasadena, supply a lid, not unlike a coffee lid, that circulates just the right amount of air for sipping and shields the drinker from a foam mustache.
The drink originated in the night market stands of Taiwan around 2010. Back then, vendors combined powdered cheese and salt with whipping cream and milk to form a foamy, tangy layer on the top of a cup of cold tea. In 2012, the topping caught on in Guangdong province in China, where purveyors behind upscale tea salon HeyTea (formerly RoyalTea) began using real cream cheese in lieu of powders and combined it with fresh milk to concoct a premium version of the savory and salty topping. At HeyTea, cheese tea soon became a phenomenon, with lines long enough to wind around the block and wait times of two to three hours.
Today, cheese tea is popular in other parts of Asia as well, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. And it’s become part of the menu of longstanding tea houses that had previously made the bulk of their business selling bubble tea drinks and other desserts. In major cities in China, some tea franchises sell an average of 1,000 cups of cheese tea per day. The drink is so popular in Japan that Japanese beverage company Kirin plans to create a bottled version. “[The Japanese] have come up with their own version of cheese tea and it’s really successful in Japan,” says Jenny Zheng, a consultant for Kirin and founder of Little Fluffy Head, the Downtown LA tea shop that specializes in cheese tea. “They have a totally different reaction than Americans, like, ‘Oh, cheese tea? That sounds delicious!’”
Stateside, however, where cheese tea sometimes goes by other monikers, like “milk cap,” “cheese mouse,” and “milk foam,” the beverage is still waiting to achieve widespread popularity. “The concept of cheese tea sounds too weird for [Americans] to try. People associate cheese with pizza,” says Zheng, who was also initially skeptical of the drink. “Now when you put [cheese] into a drink, it just sounds weird.”
Uber-popular bubble tea brand Boba Guys seemingly agrees. It poked fun at the off-putting image the name brings to mind in an April Fool’s spoof in which it joked it would sell its own Instagram-friendly teas topped with cheese “ranging from the highest-quality Brie and bleu cheese to toppings including Kraft singles and Cheez Whiz (perfect for layering!).” And even prolific Taiwan-based bubble tea franchise Gong Cha — which actually sells cheese tea — wasn’t confident that cheese tea as it’s sold in Asia would appeal to customers in the U.S. “Last year they introduced cheese-flavored milk foam, so it’s saltier and cheesier and they only carry it [in Asia], probably because we weren’t sure how it would go over with the American market,” says Anchal Lamba, president of Gong Cha USA. Gong Cha stores in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Texas only offer the franchise’s signature milk foam, which lacks the salty, cheese flavor of its cheese tea option.
But there are signs that cheese tea may yet become a bonafide trend in the United States. The drink has many of the elements of foods that have achieved not just everyday recognition, but viral fame. At cheese tea shops, black teas are topped with tiramisu creams, salty milk foam floats above green teas, yielding picturesque tumblers with contrasting colors and a variety of flavor combinations. And in 2017, food media started speculating about cheese tea as a hot new craze. Although predictions that cheese tea would overtake bubble tea in popularity haven’t quite come to fruition a year later, independent cheese tea shops are starting to succeed in the U.S. by making direct appeals to the American palate.
At Little Fluffy Head, Zheng offers customized milk cream toppings such as cheesecake cream, creme brulee, white chocolate cream, and tiramisu, along with an additional option to pre-swirl the toppings throughout the drink. Emil DeFrancesco of Steap in San Francisco’s Chinatown sources mascarpone from neighboring pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani to create his signature foam top. “[Steap] is more of an American brand. I’ve got drinks like mint julep and Southern sweet tea — flavors that people might be more familiar with,” says DeFrancesco. Johnny Li, who opened Motto in Pasadena in March, batches his labor-intensive “cheese mousse” twice per day by simmering cheese and refrigerating the topping without stabilizers, which means that once he runs out, customers will have to wait until the next batch to get their fix. He offers a Nutella mousse for those with a hazelnut affinity, though his cheese mousse is still the best-seller of all his toppings.
While independent shops in the U.S. are customizing their cheese teas to their respective urban markets, franchises from abroad such as Happy Lemon, headquartered in Shanghai, and Gong Cha in Taiwan are well positioned to capitalize on the drink’s popularity in Asia by opening locations stateside. What preset menus, ready-to-go marketing, and predetermined ingredients lack in creativity, they make up for with an established reputation as an extension of an overseas brand.
“There’s always a line, often with over an hour wait, whenever we open a store,” says Jasmine Chin, a managing member of the Happy Lemon, based in San Francisco. And, she adds, the customers are largely diverse. “People of all ages come and they want to get a cup of coffee, which is great, because then sometimes they’ll try cheese tea for the first time,” says Chin. Chin has seen cheese tea enthusiasts at Happy Lemon locations requesting multiple layers of cheese foam, sacrificing even the level of tea in the cup. “You can order less of the tea and more of the cheese,” she says. “Sometimes people get triple layers of cheese; some people even say they want cheese on the side. They’ll save it to add later on.”
Boba shops that sell cheese tea are also helping the drink spread by putting cheese tea in a more familiar context. “It’s actually good for us that there’s more boba shops selling cheese tea, because it makes cheese tea more common,” says Zheng. “They’re competitors, but [their presence] makes it easier and more accessible to the general public.”
But for cheese tea to reach boba-level popularity in the U.S., tea drinkers need to get over the name and become more comfortable with the foam layer on top of their drink. In the meantime, the country’s existing cheese tea shops recognize that samples are essential to opening minds. “For the most part,” Chin says, “95 percent of the time [newcomers to cheese tea] say, ‘It’s cool! I’ve never had it and I would’ve never thought of it, and it’s good.’”