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Three bartenders hack the cheese tea into their cocktails

Everyone’s favourite beverage gets boozy. By Rachel He.

We can’t imagine standing three hours in line just to buy a drink – but that was what people did when Hey Tea, a beverage franchise from Shenzhen, first popped up in Beijing and Shanghai this year with their wildly popular cheese tea creation. Shanghai’s now home to seven Hey Tea stores to get your fix, but you’ll still need to wait upwards of 30 minutes – and that’s just on a weekday – to get a cup.

What is cheese tea anyway? Sounds like a really odd combination of flavours to be putting in a cup, much less your mouth… And why are some bartenders even making a cocktail, borrowing it as inspiration?

When served, it’s as literal as it sounds. Tea, served hot or cold, with or without ice sits under a float of thick, cheesy foam (a combination of milk, cream and cheese). To enjoy it properly, drinkers take heavy lugs from the lip, making sure to get a good dose of fragrantly bitter tea, as well as the sweet, creamy and a touch umami foam with each sip. For most Chinese people who aren’t accustomed to eating cheese, pairing the two made the experience fun and less intimidating. Hey Tea made the drink the phenomenon it is, but at stores like A Little Tea and Gong Cha have also ventured into creating their own versions of the drink, with much less queuing necessary.

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So, with bartenders getting their inspiration from just about everywhere, it only made sense that they’d one day turn their eye to the wonderful world of the cheese tea. Here, we spoke to three bartenders from Shanghai – Sunny Xiao from Chic Tail Bar, Zero Chen at The Union Trading Company, and Choni Song at The Cannery – to learn about their affinity for the drink, and how they hacked their own versions of the drink for their punters.

Sunny Xiao, Chic Tail Bar

“I’ll be honest – I’m Hey Tea’s target customer. When you spoke about the people who queued up for three hours for a drink, that’s me! I love cheese tea and that awesome cheese foam so much that I had to make it for myself. Luckily, I managed to create a recipe I think tastes like the real thing.

For this cocktail, Childhood, I used passion fruit, lime and osmanthus flowers from my hometown of Guangxi – which explains the name. It reminds me of growing up there. I took a while to come up with a recipe for the perfect cheese cream foam, and for a bit of fragrance, I added rosewater. This cheese tea cocktail at Chic Tail has become our signature – we serve variations with different spirits and make bespoke ones if our customers request for them too.”

Recipe (click to view) 
Childhood by Sunny Xiao

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Zero Chen at The Union Trading Company

“We’ve had our cheese tea-inspired Gun’s & Butter cocktail on the menu for about a year. Cheese tea was already picking up then, but our foreign customers unfamiliar with the beverage, so I wanted to introduce it to them. It’s actually pretty popular with them.

At our bar, we serve quite a lot of foreigners, who are already fans of cheese, so when I was experimenting with a recipe, I definitely went for saltier, more umami flavours with parmesan cheese. And to counter the cheese foam’s fatty texture, I chose a fruity and sour tea for balance.

It was really tricky to make a cheese foam I was happy with. Hey Tea is never going to share how they make it, of course! After three days of trial and error, I learned that you first dissolve salt in the milk, because cheese powder and salt are difficult to blend together in the cream. I don’t add in milk when whipping it either.”

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Recipe (click to view) 
Gun’s & Butter by Zero Chen

Choni Song at The Cannery

“I love tea very much, but I’m usually busy with work and I don’t have time to queue up to buy cups of it. Now that it’s so popular, I was intrigued to make a cocktail version of it for the bar. When making the cream cheese foam, I’ve learned to use an electronic egg whisk I borrow from the kitchen. It gives me a consistent texture for the foam, and it definitely saves me time during when I’m serving it during rush hours. The idea for the burned cheese top came from a dish at The Cannery.”

Recipe (click to view)
The Artisan #8 by Choni Song

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