Drink This Now: Cheese Tea in Chinatown

Taiwanese cheese tea is all over Asia and trending on the coasts — and you can get it at A Cup of Tea here in Philly.

Strawberry cheese tea at A Cup of Tea | Photo by Alex Jones

People put all kinds of things in tea. Milk, sugar, honey, lemon, tapioca “bubbles” — even fruit-juice filled, Gusher-style bubbles.

The latest tea trend that’s hits the coasts from Asia? That would be cheese tea, an combination of cheesy foam layered on top of iced or hot tea.

And guess what? Cheese tea is actually delicious, and you should drink some now.

Cheese tea has blown up in the States in places like New York and Los Angeles over the past few years after originating in Taiwan in 2010. I’m proud of my Philly cheese beat, so when I heard about this concoction, I asked Alexis Siemons, a tea expert and blogger who serves as La Colombe’s tea consultant  — my go-to resource for all things tea — where to get it in Philly.

Siemons suggested A Cup of Tea, a cafe in Chinatown that specializes in unique teas and other Asian drinks. The shop, which has been open for about six months, offers beverages from Japanese probiotic dairy shots called Yakult to matcha lattes to cheese tea, which shows up on their menu in a section labeled “Milk Foam with Fresh Tea.” She’s also seen it on menus at Lulu Cafe in West Philly, which serves Taiwanese fare, and A La Mousse, another Chinatown spot serving desserts and tea and coffee drinks.

Siemons first tasted cheese tea in 2013 at a small Taiwanese bakery-cafe chain called 85C in Irvine, California. “There was a line out the door,” she said. Her first cheese tea was a salted jasmine version over ice, but she didn’t yet know the customs around consuming the drink: you’re supposed to keep the layers separate, drinking the beverage at a 45-degree angle to get a taste of both. “I mixed it together, because I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to.”

A Cup of Tea | Photo by Alex Jones

While I was prepared for fluorescent colors and artificial flavors in these tea drinks, Siemons said that A Cup of Tea is brewing quality stuff in-house.

“It looks like they’re brewing premium sachet tea in the back, and they’re not using powder or a low-grade tea,” she said. “They have multiple pure, unflavored teas on the menu and are using fresh fruit, too.” The shop also stocks glass vials of high-quality loose tea and hand-whisks its own matcha, which you rarely see in shops in Philly.

Cheese tea can be made with freshly brewed hot tea or tea that’s been chilled; you can request different sugar levels, from 0% to 100%, and ice, less ice, or no ice at all. We tried two cheese teas on the menu — a roasted oolong and a strawberry fruit tea. The roasted oolong came cold, no ice, and the fruit tea was floral-tasting, blended with ice and strawberries.

Photo by Alex Jones

On top, there’s a thick layer of the cheese foam, which A Cup of Tea makes by blending milk, cream cheese, and salt until it’s smooth and frothy. The most important thing about cheese tea? Don’t mix it up or try to drink it with a straw. The roasted oolong cup came with a sticker cautioning the consumer not to insert a straw or mix the layers.

This was easier to do with the wide-mouth cup than the tall, skinnier cheese tea cup. It was harder to get both the strawberry layer and the foam layer in the fruit tea, since the fresh fruit and ice had separated from the tea below — so at first, my drink tasted like a liquefied cheesecake.

Which is pretty delicious, actually. The foam is lightly tangy and cultured, like cream cheese — this isn’t the kind of milk foam you’d find on a cappuccino — and tastes just slightly sweet, with a very rich texture.

“That particular tea has a certain depth to it that stands up to the cheese,” Siemons said of her roasted oolong. “It’s got this balanced sort of malty-salty-sweet flavor. It’s a really good deconstructed latte.”

The roasted oolong’s malty flavor and light sweetness paired well with the foam, and the strawberry blended tea just tasted like a strawberry cheesecake milkshake, with a light, floral tea in place of the milk. It’s more of a dessert drink than a refreshing cooler or caffeinated pick-me-up, but one I’d happily drink again any time.

A Cup of Tea is located at 115 North 9th Street in Chinatown. Order a fresh tea with milk foam, hot or cold (cold is more popular), or one of the fruit teas with milk foam to give it a try. Check out the menu below (click to enlarge).

Photo by Alex Jones