Just days before her due date, my pregnant friend Helena and I finally managed to visit our local Hey Tea, a trendy drink shop in China selling a strange new beverage called cheese tea. She’d heard a rumor that her pregnancy would allow us to skip to the front of the ridiculously long line that usually stretched out of the tea shop’s door and around a Beijing shopping mall — and we wanted to take advantage of her swelling belly while she still had it.
But when we arrived at the store, we were told the rumor was false — we’d have to wait like everyone else. Thankfully, though, the line was only about half as long as we thought it’d be. An hour later, I finally emerged from the queue with two tall drinks in thick plastic cups. Helena waited at a patio table, next to young, fashionable, mostly female tea consumers, who posed with their drinks and posted them on their social media feeds before taking their first sips.
My matcha tea was covered with a thick layer of whipped, sweet foam. I had heard that the recommended way of drinking the tea was like a latte, tipping it back to ingest the layer of cheesy foam before a tide of refreshing tea washed over the tongue. The tea was lighter than I expected, but whether it was worth the wait was debatable. It’s possible that the caffeine kick sped up Helena’s labor, though. Within 72 hours, her baby daughter was born.
Capitalizing on social media, a New Zealand dairy company’s desire to capture the Chinese market, and Starbucks-like interiors, Hey Tea cafes are taking China by storm. The company has 200 shops in China and plans to double that in the next year. They are part of a countrywide trend of tea shops that have sprouted like weeds in Chinese cities in the last few years. According to a report by Meituan, a Chinese food delivery app, there are about half a million such beverage shops like Hey Tea in the country, and many of them are building their audience with various iterations of cheese tea.