Cheese what? You may be thinking incredulously. But yes, cheese tea is not only a common drink in China, but people are lining up for hours on end to get their hands on some!

The craze is mostly promoted by a tea store called HEYTEA, or 喜茶, in Chinese. It originally began as a small store called Royal Tea by the riverside in 2012 and has since grown into an extremely popular franchise by selling a novel new drink – cheese tea. Of course, they have other drinks too – in fact, HEYTEA prides themselves in providing only high-quality tea from all over the world – but their cheese tea is what they’re known for. You may be wondering why they would use only high-quality tea only to ruin it with cheese, but don’t worry, it’s not as if they’ve just taken a block of cheddar and plopped it in a cup of fresh tea. The cheese part of cheese tea is more of a cream cheese in terms of texture and flavor. According to their website, the cheese they use is actually imported from New Zealand. 

When making the drink, the cheese is gently poured on top of the sweet tea drink, so that when it’s served, there are distinct layers of tea and cheese. It can be mixed together, or drunk as is, but either way, HEYTEA claims that the salty cheese will pair wonderfully with the milder and sweet taste of the tea underneath.

When their Shanghai branches first opened in 2016, lines full of people itching to try cheese tea swelled up to 7 hours long! HEYTEA itself had to hire security guards to control impatient customers and those trying to cut the line, and they limited each person to only two drinks as to ward off scalpers. Many curious first-timers and HEYTEA fans alike would download apps that would allow them to have someone wait in line for them and then have the tea delivered to their house. 

Knowing all this, of course I had to try some when I arrived in China.

I arrived at the HEYTEA store in YiFang Center, Shenzhen on a Wednesday night after work. The first thing I noticed was the stunning decor. Apparently the location in YiFang Center is one of their HEYTEA DP Program, a program in which they seek to connect cultures across the globe by working with independent designers from different fields all around the world. There was plenty of seating space, with round white tables all connected to each other and connected with thin poles to the ceiling. With a few plants placed sparsely throughout the store, the little poles reminded me of tree trunks stretching up to the sun. Design is a large part of what makes the franchise so successful, especially their cute little logo which features a boy with a cup of tea halfway to his mouth.

Despite all the hype and all the social media posts I’d seen about it, I still was skeptical. How could cheese ever pair with tea? So I ordered their Brûlée Bubble Tea because dessert and cheese made more sense to me than fruit and cheese. The cashier told me to come back in 40 minutes and it would be ready, so I set a timer on my phone and went off to explore the mall.

Forty minutes later I returned and indeed, there my tea was, waiting for me. Given that it was brûlée bubble tea, they had sprinkled sugar on top and blowtorched it, just like real crème brûlée. Underneath the caramelized sugar was a layer of soft cream cheese, then a layer of tea, and lastly, at the bottom, a layer of black tapioca bubbles. It looked spectacular

Claire Wang

But what about the most important question – how did it taste?

The instructions on the lid told me to mix my drink thoroughly, so I did before taking a cautious sip. The sweet tea hit me first, and then came the bubbles, and then the cheese. The saltiness did compliment the tea extremely well. Without the cheese, the entire drink might have been far too sweet, but when the salt from the cheese hits you, it’s perfectly balanced. It ended up tasting more like a creamier milk tea than cheese. And who doesn’t like bubble milk tea? 

I only understood all the hype after trying it, and in fact returned to try it again and again. And luckily for those of you who might also want to try it, it’s spreading to America. In New York’s Flushing neighborhood, Happy Lemon serves four different flavors of cheese tea. Across the country in LA, Little Fluffy Head Cafe is starting to serve it too. Cheese tea has yet to become the internet craze in America that it is in China, but by the looks of it, it’s only just getting started.