By Gregory Furgala
Through its clear plastic cup, it looks like a latte, but with only one sip it’s very clear that it isn’t a latte. It’s salty, sweet and tangy. The head is thicker and heavier than the airy foam that crowns anything found in the typical coffee shop, but it’s cold and refreshing. The beverage goes by a few names: in Mandarin, it’s called zhī shì chá; in Japanese, naigai cha. In English, it’s commonly referred to as cheese tea.
It seems like an odd marriage, but think less cheddar and more tiramisu and the unlikely union will begin to make sense. It’s typically made with cream cheese that’s been whipped with heavy cream and sugar, which is then gently ladled over top of cold jasmine, black or oolong tea. The cheese is occasionally dosed with salt, and confections like crushed Oreos sprinkled on top. Some places experiment with mascarpone and Gouda. In the end, though, it’s just tea with milk, although in this case, it’s a cuppa with a dollop.
It’s unclear exactly where cheese tea was first concocted. Competing Guangzhou tea shops Hey Tea and Liho were both serving it in 2015, and both claim precedence over the other. Conde Nast Traveler credits tea shops in Taiwan for inventing it in 2010, albeit with powdered cheese instead of the now-standard whipped cream cheese. Regardless, it has since made its way to Canada, and like the Cronut, poke bowls and stunt-garnished soft serve before it, cheese tea is the Instagrammable food trend of the moment.
Shanghai-based Happy Lemon, which has locations in Richmond, Vancouver and Toronto, plus around 1,000 locations worldwide, takes credit for first bringing cheese tea to Canada. Like Jollibee, Hot-Star and Uncle Tetsu, is capitalizing on young Canadians’ appetite for social media-friendly fare out of Asia, which, let’s face it, a cheese-loaded cup of tea most certainly is. In Global Food and Drink Trends 2018, Mintel notes that the “iGeneration,” which it identifies as teens and young adults between 10 and 27, “have grown up with technology, which has made interactivity and documentation indispensable parts of everyday life.”
It’s not just about looks, though. Mintel’s report also notes that “texture is the next facet of formulation that can be leveraged to provide consumers with interactive and documentation-worthy experiences.” Cheese tea points to a broader change in the relationship between social media and food. It’s no longer enough for something to be shareable. Charcoal, turmeric and matcha have had their days in the social media spotlight because of their saturated, Instagram-friendly colouration, but the concept of Instagram-first food is splintering into different categories, and identifying what works next, and identifying it first, is a potential boon for foodservice businesses that count on social media for their businesses, especially as the shelf life of a social media trend deteriorates with each post. For now, what counts as trend-worthy changed, and cheese tea, with its velvety texture, met the moment, and what’s next depends as much on technology as it does on foodservice providers. Restaurateurs that ignore the tech sector may find their own seemingly unrelated businesses lose revenue.
What kind of traction cheese tea will ultimately maintain is an open question. Cronuts didn’t stand the test of time, but avocado toast looks like it’s here to stay. At any given moment, some out-there burger is one-upping another in an ongoing hamburger arms race. Cannabis everything is bound to have a moment, but what that moment will look like, and how it can be most effectively monetized, is the billion-dollar secret. Bubble tea, which in North America predates cheese tea by decades, is having its own social media moment alongside cheese tea. The moment met it, proving the old can collect on the same social media cred as the new.
In the meantime, preparing cheese tea is a cinch for anywhere that can brew tea and make whipped cream. The more imaginative can incorporate consumers’ enduring preferences for farm-fresh ingredients by using local cheese and seasonal produce. Any tea or infusion is fair game, further opening up the possibility for partnerships and collaborations with local purveyors. If cheese tea isn’t a lasting trend, it could still be an easy short-term revenue generator that foodservice operators can quickly add to their menus. There’s no reason they can’t meet this moment, too.