Cheese and ice tea doesn’t sound like a particularly tasty combination, but just try telling that to the thousands of people all across China standing in line for up to five hours to get their hands on a cup of it. Cheese tea is a nationwide sensation, making it hard to believe that it was created by a guy in his early 20s with no real knowledge of tea.
Only a few months ago, Hey Tea, the company behind China’s insanely popular cheese ice tea, was a small street-side shop in Jiangmen, Guangdong, but today they have over 50 branches in Guangdong Province alone, as well as new venues in bustling urban centers like Shanghai and Beijing. They are growing at an astonishing rate, but it’s still not enough to satisfy demand for their bizarrely-sounding cheese tea. People still have to spend at least 2 hours, and, in some cases, up to 5 hours in line to get their hands on a cup. It’s apparently so good that busy people pay others to wait in line for them, and the company sometimes has to hire private security to keep the lines moving and hustlers from cutting in line.
So what is the deal with cheese tea? Well, it’s apparently very similar to Gong Cha, another popular brand of tea in China, which tops of the refreshing drink with a thick layer of cream. Only Hey Tea uses imported cheese instead, which apparently compliments the tea surprisingly well. The gooey cheese usually comes from Australia and New Zealand, and is described as creamy and salty.
But why is tea and cheese considered delicious, again? Xiao Shuqin, Hey Tea’s publicist, recently told VICE Munchies that “the cheese neutralizes the bitterness of the tea with its smooth and sweet flavor, and as you drink it you taste the returning sweetness of the tea.” I haven’t tried it, so I can’t comment on that, but if the insane popularity of the drink is anything to go by, she’s most likely right.
Because getting your hands on a cup of original Hey Tea cheese ice tea requires hours of waiting in line, the drink itself has become somewhat of a trophy to be showed off on social media. Many of Hey Tea’s customers snap pictures of their drinks and post them online, before taking their first sip, and that only boosts the company’s success.
“Social media has made this place a fashion, a trend, and a symbol,” one Hey Tea customer in Beijing said. “It’s like when we first had Starbucks here.”
Another thing that makes Hey Tea so impressive is that it was founded by a 21-year-old guy with no experience in tea drinks. Nie Yunchen started his own tea mixing shop in 2012, in his home city of Jiangmen. Sales were unsurprisingly poor, with slow days often resulting in sales of just a few cups. But the ambitious young man didn’t give up. Instead, he looked for inspiration in improving his small business, and found it in Starbucks, the international coffee chain with 1100 branches in China alone.
Studying Starbucks, Nie realized the importance of branding and putting customers first, so he and his team invested hundreds of dollars more into the company, creating new tea mixes, opting for better quality ingredients and focusing a lot on marketing. But upon reopening the shop, a year later, the results were just as modest as before. Something wasn’t working and Nie decided to find out what by listening to his customers.
The young founder went on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) and read what his customers had to say, especially their criticism. He made adjustments, and business started to pick up. The internet and Nie’s lack of experience with tea combinations can also be credited for the creation of Hey Tea’s signature cheese tea. After noticing that cheese was one of the most discussed food flavors on Weibo, Nie Yunchen decided to try mixing it with his teas, and found that both the flavor and the texture of the drink were surprisingly better. Apparently, his customers felt the same way.
After cheese tea became popular in Jiangmen, Nie decided to change the name of his company from Royaltea, to HEEKCHA and, in 2016, to Hey Tea, due to the growing numbers of copycats that not only copied their drinks, but also their name. Even after multiple rebrandings, you can still see knock-offs like “Hi Tea” or “Hey Juice” selling cheese teas in cities like Shanghai. They are a nuisance, but also a testament to Hey Tea’s success.
If you ever get the chance to try cheese tea, Hey Tea recommends holding the cup tilted at a 40 degree angle so that the right amount of cheese and tea flow up into your mouth with every sip. The thick creamy cheese layer gives the tea a really nice texture, and its salt seasoning apparently bring out the flavor and sweetness of the drink.
Hey Tea offers several varieties of cheese teas, including green, black and oolong, with prices per cup ranging between 9RMB – 29RMB ($1.30 – $4.20).