Think cheese tea and only one brand should come to mind.
No, we’re not talking about the local copycat or wannabe, but China’s HEYTEA, the original gourmet tea brand recognised as the inventor of the cheese tea foam. It’s also China’s top tea beverage brand, having achieved that level of fame in a short six years, since it was established by founder Nie Yunchen in 2012.
So what makes it so popular? Well, for one thing, don’t call this a bubble tea brand because while it serves tea, its focus isn’t on pearls but on the fresh fruits – strawberry, grapefruits, mango, as well the premium teas it offers.
And yes, there is the much-maligned cheese foam that has been a hit and miss for many other brands, but having reportedly developed the topping ahead of everyone else, HEYTEA’s presentation of its foam topping is the best in the market. Smooth, light but creamy – the foam doesn’t consume the drinks and the flavour within.
And instead of a traditional sealed cup, the brand offers a lid, much like the one introduced last year by local brand, LiHo, but done differently. It doesn’t do the sealed cups like Koi, where a small blade is offered to slit a hole in the seal, nor does it use the lid with a hole. Instead, it offers a sliding lid, where half of the lid can be rotated, to reveal an opening of choice.
Want a small sip? Simply slide it open a crack for a quick pick me up. Want a foam upper lip? Rotate the lid all the way, and gulp down that thin, smooth cheese foam. It’s a simple elegant solution to a premium topping that didn’t fit with existing serving containers.
Already, the first day of operations saw a line of customers waiting two hours in line, just for a special cup of the beverage. Of course, having a 1-for-1 promotion for the first 3 days of operations helps.
Regarded as the Starbucks to China’s tea beverage industry, HEYTEA has over 110 outlets in over 17 cities across China, including in Beijing and Shenzhen. It has been reported that customers there waited seven hours for a cup of their delicious tea.
Singaporeans might be willing to do the same, as the brand is not merely bringing their existing menu here, but also investing in local flavours. On top of the two ice cream flavours, Tea King ($2.80) and Mango ($4.80), served by the brand, HEYTEA is launching two new flavours exclusive to the Singapore market – Durian ($4.80) and Salted Egg Yolk ($4.80).
While a D24 ice cream isn’t new, the addition of a Salted Egg Yolk flavour might prove interesting, if you can get behind the fact that salted egg yolk is now synonymous with Singapore’s food scene.
Two of the brand’s signature teas are the oolong King Fone ($5.50) and Ever Spring ($5.50) tea. The King Fone, with its light fragrance and smooth after taste, is the preferred one here.
The cheese foam, or cheezo as they call it, on the Jade Matcha ($5.90) offered a great mix. The tea was milky and smooth, and the cheese foam wasn’t overpowering, allowing the matcha flavour to pour through. While the brand offers two cup sizes, some beverages, like the Jade Matcha with cheese, only comes in the smaller size.
Recognition should be given to the use of the rotating lid though. The use of a spout for cheese foam beats slitting a hole in the seal of a bubble tea, but the control given to a user, on being able to control the opening, is just a reflection of how the brand values the user experience.
But the biggest surprise isn’t with the tea or lids. There might be other tea brands offering fruit based teas, but HEYTEA has it down right.
The Grapefruit Boom ($5.90) and Lemon Boom ($5.50) ice blended drinks were both missing one thing – seeds.
Here’s the thing about both these fruits – there are the normal seeds, and there are the smaller seeds that can slip by most filters. They get stuck in your mouth, slips between teeth, and just remind you that there’s some dirty remnant in your drink.
But there was none to be found here. It’s the first thing you notice immediately when the cup is handed over to you – the seeds have all been removed. And for us grapefruit fans – you know how the grapefruit seeds, no matter how small, are terrible to swallow? Or the bitter grapefruit membrane that has this terrible after taste?
They were not in my drink. Ditto for the Lemon Boom as well. We checked with the team, and the HEYTEA staff actually remove all the seeds and the membrane before adding it to the drink.
The drink itself is spectacular, because without the bitter membrane interfering with the flavour, what we got was a cup of sweet grapefruit with all the sweetness and flavour, but without that punishing aftertaste that has become the signature of the fruit.
The Strawberry Cheezo ($8.70) offers the same level of flavour and if you love your strawberry, there’s a Very Strawberry Cheezo that, you guess it, gives extra servings of strawberry.
In a market saturated with tea cafes and bubble tea offerings, HEYTEA entry to the local market is long overdue but welcome one. If there’s one thing we need, it’s a China brand telling us how to enjoy our traditional tea.