From a distance, I thought the well-lit, glass-enclosed store in the center of a busy shopping area of Hangzhou was a Starbucks. It was late in the evening and customers were still lined up out the door.

Then I noticed the sign reading HEYTEA. I had stumbled upon the latest food craze sweeping across China.

This innovative tea bar infuses an unusual ingredient into China’s most consumed beverage. That unlikely ingredient is cream cheese.

Called zhī shì chá in Mandarin, cold tea topped with cream cheese has spread from the street stalls of Taiwan to China, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and now the United States.

The original recipe, using cheese powder instead of real dairy products, originated in Taiwan around 2010. HEYTEA, one of several tea bars offering cheese tea, elevated the concept by using New Zealand cheese and cream when it opened in 2012.

CEO Nie Yunchen, then 21 years old, launched a small 330-square-foot RoyalTea shop in the south China city of  Jiangmen.

He later upgraded and rebranded as HEYTEA. The company has rapidly expanded to over 100 stores in 13 cities across the country, selling 2,000 to 3,000 cups daily—per branch. The company recently received an investment of $64 million dollars to fund further expansion.

This Hangzhou tea bar is one of 100 HeyTea locations found in 13 Chinese cities.

The recipe is simple. Cold-brewed green, oolong, or black tea is placed into a large, clear plastic cup along with flavorings, fruits, and sweeteners. A generous portion of whipped cream cheese with a bit of sea salt is added.  A light dusting of matcha highlights the topping before a lid is applied. Every cup is made to order and may take up to five minutes to assemble.

 

The busy bar staff at HeyTea in Hangzhou, China.

The consumer may drink through a slot in the lid or by using an oversized straw. The cream cheese floats above the tea.

It’s best to either drink the tea through the hole in the lid, which gives you a hint of savory cheese as you drink the slightly sweet liquid, or to use the straw to sip the beverage from the bottom up – similar to eating the icing after you’ve had your cake.

Don’t mix the cream cheese into the tea with your straw! This is considered bad form and it does dilute the sweet and savory tasting experience.

Cheese tea can be found in Los Angeles at Little Fluffy Head Cafe. I suspect it will be making an appearance in more tea bars across America before too long.

I found the 16-ounce portion to be quite filling, and there’s no word yet on the calorie count per serving.

Photos copyrighted by Bruce Richardson.

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