KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Until recently, people in China were consuming virtually no cheese. Aside from nomadic tribes in Mongolia and Tibet who lead a herding lifestyle and make cheese from yak and goat milk, cheese has otherwise never been a part of the mainstream Chinese diet.
But globalisation is a powerful thing, and slowly but surely, an entire population found themselves being converted - lactose intolerance notwithstanding - as increased travel, awareness and wanting to be "in" brought about rampant change.
According to a 2014 article in the Daily Beast, America sent less than 2,000 metric tonnes of cheese to China in 2009. By 2013, this had shot up to 11,000 metric tonnes. This changing palate is reflected in other ways too, most notably the raging trend that has spread across China over the past few years: cheese tea.
The cheese tea trend was thought to have started a few years ago, with the introduction of popular tea shops like Heekcaa (now known as Heytea), Royaltea and Regiustea, all of which have China origins and offer cheese tea.
These quirky-sounding concoctions incorporate fruit teas and green teas at the bottom with a thick layer of frothy cream cheese on top. In some iterations, the cream cheese layer is slightly sweet; in others, it is sprinkled with sea salt for a salty aftertaste.
In China, the impact of cheese teas has been immediate and highly contagious. At Heytea outlets, queues were phenomenally long.
Malaysian food blogger Ethan Wong was in Guangzhou, China, last month and came across Heytea patrons queuing up since 9.30am at a store that only opened at 11am.
Wong queued for an hour at another seemingly less popular outlet before placing his order - only to find out there were 100 people ahead of him in the order queue.
In the past few years, the cheese tea trend has continued to spread.
Regiustea already has 72 outlets in China, while Royaltea has over 130.
And according to a recent article in South China Morning Post, Heytea now has 50 outlets in its homeland.
As a result of the success of the original cheese tea pioneers, many others have sprouted up everywhere in China, including imitations with copycat names like Royalstea.
In Malaysia, cheese tea is beginning to gain traction, with the recent launch in March of Chizu Drink in the Sunway Pyramid Shopping Mall and Regiustea in Sunway Velocity Mall in April. Both have proven immensely popular since they opened.
Two weeks ago, another major player, Royaltea, officially opened its first Klang Valley outlet in SS15 in Subang Jaya on May 7, securing a firm footing for this genre of trendy drinks.
Tyson Tee, the COO of Reguistea said he was inspired to launch Regiustea in Malaysia after coming across a Regiustea outlet in Guangzhou where queues were phenomenally long. He queued up for over 30 minutes to get his cheese tea drink and was blown away by the rich flavours. He then enquired about franchising Regiustea outside of China, and is now the master franchise holder for Regiustea in South-east Asia.
Tee says response for cheese tea locally has been phenomenal and the Regiustea outlet in Sunway Velocity sells an average of 800 cheese teas a day, with queues stretching up to three shops away on weekends and public holidays.
The numbers they are seeing here are on par with the performance of outlets in large Chinese cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai, where, according to Tee, over 1,000 cheese teas are sold daily.
Regiustea Malaysia's most popular offerings to date are the green tea cheese (RM11.90, S$3.84) and the uji matcha (RM13.90, S$4.49). To drink the outlet's cheese teas, you are encouraged to take off the plastic cover, tip back the beverage and drink. Stirring is not encouraged and straws are provided but frowned upon.
"You are encouraged to drink without straws. When you drink this way, you can feel two layers of taste - cheese followed by tea. If you drink it with a straw, you can mostly only taste the tea," says Tee.
Regiustea also has a host of other cheese concoctions on the menu, like the popular signature choco cheese (RM13.90) which combines rich, chocolatey flavours with cream cheese. This is one of those drinks that has 'gold' written all over it. It is sweetly seductive and alluring, combining two of man's greatest pleasures in a single addictive cup.
WHAT DOES CHEESE TEA TASTE LIKE?
The notion of cheese and tea can be off-putting for the average person who cannot fathom how two unlikely bedfellows - fat and water - can form a harmonious companionship. If you are of this school of thought - you are not alone. I was one of these cautious disbelievers - that is, until I tried the cheese teas in question.
Regiustea's green tea cheese offers a thick layer of slightly-sweet cream cheese laced with light green tea flavours. It is a cold, satisfying drink that almost feels like an airy slice of cheese cake.
The uji matcha, on the other hand, offers stronger green tea flavours juxtaposed against the rich, lush background of cream cheese. It is a rewarding drink that you will find yourself hankering after. Both drinks deliver immediate pleasure - the richness of the cream cheese set against the tannic flavours of the teas.
Another pleasant surprise when you drink cheese teas is the Instagram- worthy milk moustaches that form over your upper lips, as a result of the layer of cream cheese on top.
Interestingly, these milk moustaches have become one of the most talked-about attributes of cheese tea.
Meanwhile, over at Chizu Drink, photogenic husband-and-wife team JJ Choo and his wife Ong Yunn Shing, decided to capitalise on the Japanese-influenced cheese trend, which has rapidly become popular in Malaysia (think baked cheese tarts).
This Japanese influence is reflected in their ingredients, which are sourced from Japan, like the cream cheese and many of their teas. Their drinks come in three variants - less cheese, regular and super flavour (which provides an extra shot of cheese).
"Some people cannot accept cheese while others like everything super-cheesy, so we have different levels to cater to everyone," he says.
Chizu Drink has also done well since its inception, selling an average of 1,000 cheese teas a day.
Choo and Ong decided to add the sea salt component as they wanted to stand out from other cheese tea purveyors whose cheese layer is traditionally on the sweet side.
Chizu's cups come with in-built openings, so you don't have to lift the cover to drink. Instead, you will just need to tip the drink back and sip through the opening.
Unfortunately, this sounds far easier in theory than it is in reality, and if you are over-eager, you might just find yourself spilling far more than you are drinking.
From the cheese tea offerings, you could try the jasmine green tea (RM11 for the regular).
The drink has pronounced jasmine notes and less pronounced cheese flavours.
In fact, the foamy cheese is hard to distinguish in this offering, and the sea salt is almost indiscernible.
The premium red tea (RM11 for the regular option) has a richness to it that emanates from the tea, but again the cheese layer is very light.
Chizu also has cheese drinks on offer, including blackcurrant cheese (RM12 for the regular option) and chocolate cheese (RM13 for the regular option).
The blackcurrant cheese has delicious berry flavours, combined with barely-there cheese nuances while the chocolate cheese is so chocolatey, you are likely to forget there is even a cheese component in play.
If you like your cheese more subdued and contained, you will probably like what Chizu has to offer, but otherwise this is a much tamer version of cheese tea.
Demographics and expansion plans
In terms of demographics, Regiustea's Tee says their primary clientele in Malaysia are people aged between 18 to 38, as this age group tends to be more adventurous and willing to try new things. Chizu's Choo says they get a lot of college students, but equally, they have found that children and older people are just as willing to give their drinks a shot.
Given the phenomenal success that they have experienced in Malaysia so far, both Regiustea and Chizu plan to expand their presence locally. Regiustea already has a second outlet in the works in Johor Baru, with an eye to opening in major malls in the Klang Valley, and expanding to Singapore and Vietnam when the time is right.
Royaltea's first outlet was in Johor Baru; the Subang Jaya outlet is its second.
Chizu, on the other hand, wants to open at least another 10 outlets in major malls in the city and will soon be expanding its cheese tea range to include fruit teas with cheese. Both are confident that the cheese tea trend is here to stay.
"Our cheese tea is our most popular drink for sure," says Too, adding that 80 per cent of people who come to Regiustea come for the cheese tea.
Choo agrees and says they would not be expanding if they didn't see the trend growing with them.
"Everyone can drink it. It doesn't matter whether it's teenagers or kids or uncles and aunties - they can all accept it," he says.