Cheese Foam Tea

A creamy dollop of salted cheese foam adds delicious layers of texture and flavor to a classic bubble tea.

Cheesefoam Bubble Tea in front of a orange backdrop

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Why It Works

  • A cheese foam made with cream cheese gives plain iced tea a pleasant tang.
  • Chilling the tea beforehand keeps the beverage cold and prevents the cheese foam from melting too quickly when served.

For those who have never heard of cheese foam tea—rest assured, it’s not as heavy or as funky as it sounds. There are no actual chunks of cheese floating around. In fact, the term cheese foam is bit of misnomer because it is, in reality, more texturally similar to the foam cap on top of a silky cappuccino than Cheez Whip. You’re meant to sip it slowly—the creamy foam provides a lovely contrast to the crisp iciness of cold tea. And contrary to its name, there isn’t a lot of cheese in cheese foam. Most recipes only use a spoonful of cream cheese or cheese foam powder, which adds a subtle savory note. 

The actual cheese foam can be a lot of different things. The base of it is almost always a heavy whipping cream flavored with either whole milk, condensed milk, milk powder, cheese foam powder, or cream cheese. A hit of salt ties it all together.

Adding cheesefoam to the top of glass tea

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Every store has a different way of doing it, though the texture is generally the same: a velvety foam cap that’s slightly more liquid than a cappuccino foam, yet not as stiff as whipped cream. The addition of milk and/or condensed milk loosens up the texture a bit. The powders and cream cheese are used sparingly as flavoring. I used whole milk and cream cheese for accessibility reasons; they are much easier to procure than fancy cheese powders, the latter of which is usually made with non-dairy creamer mixed with artificial cheese flavoring and sugar. 

“We add milk powder, cheese powder, and sea salt,” says Bacon Huang, a 26-year-old store manager at Jiate, a high-end Taiwanese cheese foam shop. It’s whipped up to order with a hand mixer, and then scooped over a drink—usually a plain iced tea (of any flavor like oolong or black) or a fruit tea. “Cheese foam on passionfruit tea is a really popular combination,” says Huang. Adding boba—or tapioca pearls—is completely optional. “Not many people order it with boba, but those who do just want something to chew on,” he says. You can add boba into the beverage if you’d like. Most people don’t do it, but I do because I like the chewy texture of the pearls. 

Tapioca pearls in a pot

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

While sometimes described as a new twist on boba tea, cheese foam tea is actually a completely different trend altogether. While eccentric, it’s also nothing new: Cheese foam tea is a popular beverage in Taiwan, where it was invented over two decades ago. “When I was in university, we’d drink the tea just to get a foam mustache,” says Remy Hsu, a 31-year-old film producer in Taiwan who grew up enjoying the drink. “You’d take a picture, put it on your blog, and people would think you were trendy.” 

Taiwanese purveyors started adding cheese foam on top of sweet iced tea in 2002, a phenomenon which eventually caught on in China and spread like wildfire with brands like HeyTea. The beverage became the hottest drink of the decade in the region, often commanding two hour–long wait times. While the peak of the frenzy has since subsided, there are now cheese foam tea stands all across Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and beyond where it is still considered a staple. 

But for Hsu, cheese foam is so much more than just a trend; it brings back fond memories of his school years. In the early 2010s, he and his friends frequented a popular Taiwanese tea shop called Lattea, one of the first tea chains to bring the drink to the mainstream. “Cheese foam is something you drink when you hang out with friends,” Hsu says, noting that his social life back then revolved around the beverage. “It was just a cheap way to hang out and Lattea would let kids sit there all day. Before cell phones, we played board games there. Then in university, we played video games there on our laptops.”

A hand putting a straw into the cheesefoam bubble tea

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

At the end of the day, the foam is meant to be an indulgent topping on an ice cold drink and provides a unique textural and flavor contrast. It’s also incredibly easy to make: add your ingredients to a bowl in stages, whip it up until it becomes aerated and cloud-like, then scoop it over tea. Serve in an ice cold tall glass and enjoy immediately—preferably with friends around. “Unlike boba milk tea, which can be grab-and-go, cheese foam is something you have to sit and drink,” says Huang. “It’s for the texture. You can’t let it sit for too long because it’ll melt.” 

In a way, this drink is better at home. Instead of slapping a to-go cap on it and drinking it in a rush, the beauty of making this in the comfort of your own kitchen is that you can really savor it.

Recipe Facts

Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 60 mins
Total: 70 mins
Serves: 4 to 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • For the Tea:
  • 6 tablespoons (12g) loose-leaf black tea, or 4 tea bags
  • Coarse raw sugar, such as demerara, to taste  
  • For the Tapioca Pearls (optional): 
  • 1 cup (180g) dried black tapioca pearls (often labeled as boba) 
  • 1 cup (200g) coarse raw sugar, such as demerara 
  • For the Cheese Foam: 
  • 6 tablespoons (90ml) whole milk 
  • 2 tablespoons (30g) full-fat cream cheese 
  • 1 cup (237ml) heavy cream 
  • 2 tablespoons (30g) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table or fine sea salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight

Directions

  1. For the Tea: In a 3-quart saucepan, bring 7 cups of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Turn off heat, add tea, cover, and let stand until water turns amber red, about 5 minutes. Strain tea (or remove tea bags) into a heatproof pitcher. Whisk in raw sugar to taste, cover, and refrigerate until cold.

    Overhead view of tea brewing in a pot

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  2. For the Tapioca Pearls (if using): In a 2-quart saucepan, bring 6 cups of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add tapioca pearls and cook, stirring occasionally, until all of the pearls float and turn completely brown with no white starchy bits in the center (timing can vary depending on the product; follow package cooking times for guidance). Turn off heat, cover, and let stand for 30 minutes.

    Adding tapioca pearls to boiling pot

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  3. Meanwhile, in a small pot, heat raw sugar and 1 cup water over low heat and cook, stirring, until sugar is completely dissolved. Turn off heat, cover simple syrup, and set aside. Once tapioca pearls are ready, drain pearls through a fine-mesh strainer, then add to pot with simple syrup. Cover and keep warm.

    Two image collage of sugar mixture on a pot, and then cooked tapioca pearls being added to pot.

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  4. For the Cheese Foam: In a small bowl, combine milk and cream cheese. Using a small whisk or the back of a spoon, blend the cream cheese into the milk until no lumps remain.

  5. In a medium bowl, combine cream, granulated sugar, and salt, and, using a hand mixer or a manual balloon whisk, beat at medium speed or whisk until frothy and sugar is fully dissolved, about 30 seconds. Beat or whisk in cream cheese mixture until light and airy like sea foam and still able to just barely flow, about 1 minute. 

    Overhead view of whisking cheesefoam

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  6. To serve, divide tapioca pearls (if using) between chilled tall glasses, add ice (if desired), and pour in chilled black tea. Top each glass with a couple dollops of cheese foam. If desired, add a thick straw or a long, thin spoon to scoop up the pearls. Serve immediately.

    Four Image collage of cheesefoam bubble tea being assembled

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Hand mixer or balloon whisk

Make-Ahead and Storage

The tea can be prepared in advance and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Tapioca pearls, if using, should be made the day of because cooked pearls don’t have a long shelf life and will harden when they cool down.