I tried cheese tea and I hate to disappoint you, but it's not that weird.
The drink, which originated in Taiwan, consists of a form of whipped cream cheese and salt added to hot and cold teas. The beverage has made its way to select cafes around the United States while becoming controversial, with social media commenters suggesting that the combination must be gross. To many, "cheese" and "tea" sound like a queasy combination—think covering your Earl Grey with a slice of mozzarella—and that was the overriding feeling I experienced as I made my way to the Happy Lemon tea shop inside the New York Food Court in Flushing, Queens.
At the Happy Lemon counter, I was greeted by busy TV screens displaying animated videos starring the company's lemon-headed logo, who guides you through a "cheese knowledge test."
Looking at the Salted Cheese Series section of the menu, I asked the server which was the most popular option. She recommended cold green tea. As it was blustery outside, I also grabbed a hot chocolate tea with salted cheese. She handed me a plastic lemon token with my order number on it.
While another worker prepared the drinks—which involves using a fancy frothing mixing machine to whip up the cheese topping—I asked the server what she thought of cheese tea taking off. She said most people seemed to order it because they want to "try something new." But she added that most of their orders are still from the more traditional side of the menu.
Sitting at a table in the food court, I tried the green cheese tea first. Almost instantly, it made me think of a green tea Kit Kat, but with some extra syrupy goodness going on. The salt kick is an aftertaste. Texturally, there's a pleasing contrast between the tea itself, which has a healthy hint of matcha, and the gloopier salted cheese part. (You sip cheese tea at a 45 degree angle to experience both elements; only a cheese tea amateur would use a straw.) I also stuck my finger in the salted cheese to taste that on its own. The salinity is more pronounced, almost like a salted marshmallow. Drinking more, I settled on green tea layer cake as the closest comparison.
Despite hot chocolate cheese tea sounding like a mess a toddler would concoct, it's a conservative drink. It simply tastes like a super creamy hot chocolate sprinkled with sea salt. There's an intriguing hot and cold contrast happening between the brew and the cheese, but if you’re expecting something wild, the taste is anti-climatic. I'd have liked to see some experimentation with flavored salts: Sriracha, white truffle or espresso salts would be great options.
As I double-fisted my cheese teas and walked the food court like some gluttonous tourist, I realized cheese tea hype is really about the psychology of naming. If someone had told me it was extra creamy tea or salted creamy tea I'd have thought it sounds appetizing. But cheese tea? Well, that just sounds gross—even if it really isn't.