The man in the grubby red tracksuit and backwards baseball cap saw me loitering in the shopping centre, and beckoned me over with a head flick. "Tea?" he whispered, delivering the word I associate with a nice hot brew like it was drug slang. I followed him around a corner, away from the crowds.
Twitchy and out of place among the designer handbag-swinging shoppers in Beijing's Taikoo Li shopping village, my new acquaintance unfolded a crumpled menu. Green or black cheese tea? Perhaps a grapefruit drink, or even a mango dessert? For an extra 30 yuan ($4.50) per item, one of his team of hustlers would queue up at the nearby branch of Hey Tea, the drinks company that has sent many Chinese social media users into a cheese-froth frenzy, then deliver to my house.
Something about my questioning, combined with me being accompanied by a Chinese interpreter plus a mustachioed Slovenian man with a professional-level camera, gave away my profession. "It's not illegal, it's just procurement," the tea hustler said, slinking off.
This year, Hey Tea and its signature drink—cold tea with a layer of thick, slightly frothy cheesy liquid on the top—has become a phenomenon. Founded in 2012 in the southern Guangdong province, the company was originally called Royal Tea and served a salty milk tea drink before rebranding in 2016 to Hey Tea, striking liquid gold with the unusual cheese/tea combination.
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The brand has become as famous for its lines as its drinks—when its two Beijing branches opened a few months ago customers waited for up to three hours. Xiao Shuqin, Hey Tea's publicist, told me that some had waited for seven hours outside one of the company's six Shanghai outlets. The firm has had to hire private security staff to keep the lines moving and to stop hustlers from cutting in.
I joined the queue at Beijing's Taikoo Li branch which, according to Xiao, sells around 3,000 drinks a day. I wondered how a drink you can finish in six sips could be worth it. Conversations with others in line didn't suggest that the huge wait was going to climax with some kind of tantric gulpgasm. "It's basically tea… with cheese on top," said Liu Jie, a 31 year-old HR worker who had tried Hey Tea before. I asked her to elaborate. "Cheese is nice. Tea is nice."
They are indeed nice, but so are burgers and ice cream and I wouldn't queue for seven hours to eat those shoved together. "Milk tea is not something new but having it with cheese is our idea," said Xiao. "We did research on social media and found that food and drink related to cheese and mango is always popular. We tried mango on top of tea but it didn't go well. But we found that tea and cheese really complemented each other. 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."
Hey Tea's aesthetics could be as important to its success as its products' tastes. The company branding and design was great—staff in blue barista-style uniforms poured ladle after ladle of cheese in front of the swish company logo: the red light-drawn outline of a cup-swigging boy. The see-through cups were minimalist and cool; with the huge froth layer inside them they could even have iconic potential.
Almost everyone who bought the drinks was filling their social media feeds with photos of their cheesy trophies—with a three-drink-per-customer limit, most bought at least two each. "Social media has made this place a fashion, a trend, and a symbol," said Karen Wang, a 21 year-old student knocking back a cup of green cheese tea. "It's like when we first had Starbucks here."
A picture of why Hey Tea was such a huge craze was emerging—or, rather, millions of pictures. "We saw friends posting photos of the queue at the other Beijing branch so decided to come here," said Zhang Wanqing, 16, who was taking photos of her tea placed next to her tiny pet rabbit. I asked why seeing a photo of a queue made her want to buy the tea. "It's a sense of achievement and satisfaction—we finally taste it after such a long time in the queue." And the taste? She shrugged. "Not particularly amazing. But I've got nine likes so far."
On a table nearby it was a similar story. Wang Xuan, a 23 year-old primary school teacher, saw photos of Hey Tea's massive Shanghai queues on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. Her curiosity was piqued, so she and her friend headed to the Beijing branch and were adding their own cheese tea photos to the online picture ocean. Why? "To prove that we've finally drunk it! It's a little bit of showing off. All my friends do that—that's the point, it's sharing."
Clearly, for most Hey Tea customers the queues weren't an annoyance—they were an achievement to be unlocked.
After one hour and 45 minutes I had my own cheese teas, each costing between 25 and 30 yuan ($3.80-$4.50). Three varieties, no less: green, black, and oolong. They were delicious—the cheesy goop just on the right side of sickly-rich, the tea mild and smooth. The thick off-white liquid was hardly the stilton-slap to the tongue I worried it would be—it was subtle, with Xiao explaining that it was a blend of New Zealand's Anchor cheese, milk, cream and salt.
Worth the wait? The drinks were fantastic. But I use social media for posting photographs of dogs wearing shoes, not my drinks and queues, so the full Hey Tea experience might have been lost on me.
With additional reporting by Paula Jin.