Salted cheese teas from Happy Lemon which opened in downtown Berkeley in October. Photo: Happy Lemon

Salted cheese tea is having a moment in the U.S. This trendy tea drink is a boba spin-off that first became popular in Asia and has started to make its way into more tea shops across the world. In boba shops in the States, you’ll also find it called creama/crema or mousse, perhaps to get over the stigma of putting cheese in tea. It’s true, the concept sounds horrible, but in this case, the “cheese” topping is more like a thick layer of creamy, salted foam that tops each drink. It’s made with cream cheese, whipped cream, milk and a hint of rock salt. That doesn’t sound so bad, right?

There’s a method to drinking salted cheese tea. Although you may be tempted to stir in the creamy topping and then sip the blended tea through a straw, the proper way to enjoy salted cheese drinks is to leave the thick float of cream untouched and then sip directly from the cup.

If you want to get really technical, tilt the cup at a 45 degree angle when you drink. This allows you to enjoy the tea in layers — first the sweet and salty creamy foam hits your lips, then the tea flows through, combining with the cream on its way into your mouth. Eventually, the foam will sink down into the tea, but maximum enjoyment comes during the first few minutes, when the two layers are distinct. In fact, if you’re not going to drink your salted cheese tea right away, ask your server to give you the salted cheese topping in a separate container, so you can add it right before your first sip.

Happy Lemon in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

In October, China-based boba chain Happy Lemon opened in downtown Berkeley. The Shattuck Avenue location offers nine different varieties of tea on its salted cheese series menu. Most come with a regular salted cheese topping, but three drinks come topped with a tiramisu salted cheese float.

Four of nine salted cheese drinks offered at Happy Lemon in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

I invited four other Berkeleyside team members — Tracey Taylor, Natalie Orenstein, Wendy Cohen and Doug Ng — to join me in tasting and ranking all nine of the salted cheese drinks offered at Happy Lemon. A couple of colleagues had reservations about cheese in their tea, so I commend them for partaking in the challenge anyway.

Berkeleyside staffers tasted and ranked all nine Happy Lemon salted cheese drinks. Photo: Sarah Han

NB: At Happy Lemon, customers can choose the level of sweetness of their drinks; we ordered full sweetness for this story, but you may want to consider going with less sugar — we suggest half sweetness.

Here are the results of the tasting, from best to worst:

1. Black Tea with Salted Cheese

Choosing from all nine drinks can be a bit overwhelming. But when in doubt, go with the classic. Old-school boba tea drinkers and newbs can both appreciate the combo of no-frills black tea — which is relatively strong, but not too bitter — with the creamy, salty and sweet foam. Happy Lemon posts a list of its Top 10 Drinks — Black Tea with Salted Cheese was #1, so we’re not alone in liking this one best. Although most of the Berkeleyside tasters agreed it was a top contender (it was my first choice), Tracey said the salted cheese tasted too artificial for her liking (she ranked it #7 on her list).

2. Light Oolong with Salted Cheese

Oolong tea is a Chinese tea with a toasty, but slightly fruity flavor. Unlike black teas, which have notes of bitterness, oolong is lighter in both color and flavor. Almost all Berkeleyside tasters agreed that Happy Lemon’s Light Oolong was refreshing and paired well with the salted cheese. Two tasters – Doug and Natalie —both said this drink would be good on a hot day.

3. Milk Tea with Salted Cheese

Another classic boba tea flavor — milk tea, is basically black tea, but with milk already stirred in. In this case, that means double the creaminess, with the added salted cheese float. This is Happy Lemon’s third best selling salted cheese drink (fifth best, when compared to its entire drink menu).

4. Chocolate with Salted Cheese

If you love chocolate milkshakes, this drink will be at the top of your list. Unlike the other salted cheese drinks, this is more like a thick, blended iced drink (think Jamba Juice’s Chocolate Moo’d), which means sipping this straight from the cup is a little more difficult (and messy). We suggest breaking the rules and drinking this one with a straw.

5. Iced Coffee with Salted Cheese

This is not a drink I’d suggest for third wave cold brew coffee fans. The coffee itself is weak, although the flavor suggests it was made with dark roast beans. It reminds me of those Japanese canned iced coffees, such as UCC, Boss Coffee and Pokka. Personally, it’s not my cup of tea coffee — I ranked it at the very bottom of my list. All Berkeleyside tasters agreed the coffee was too watery, but still, it gets the middle-of-the-road ranking.

6. Green Tea with Salted Cheese

The green tea — which was more like a jasmine green tea — in this drink was divisive amongst our tasters. Natalie, who chose this as her favorite drink, liked how the strong jasmine flavor paired with the cheese topping. “Neither overpowered the other,” she said. Tracey liked the crisp and cold tea (although she still didn’t like the salted cheese topping). Both Doug and I disliked the floral flavor of the jasmine tea and felt it was overwhelming, even with the addition of the salted cream. Wendy, though, felt like the jasmine flavor could’ve been punched up even more. “It was too mild to stand up to the cheese,” she said. So, if you like light, floral teas, this one might be for you; otherwise, stay away. FYI, Green Tea with Salted Cheese is Happy Lemon’s second best selling drink.

7. Matcha Latte with Tiramisu Salted Cheese

We all agreed that the tiramisu salted cheese was not our favorite topping. It was overly sweet and artificial tasting. The matcha latte, like the chocolate, is a thick, iced blended drink. Matcha is a Japanese tea, made from ground green tea leaves. It has a bright green hue, rich and slightly bitter flavor that goes well with cream. We think this drink would have ranked higher on our list if it were topped with regular salted cheese. Except Tracey, who ranked this drink at the bottom of her list. She wrote in her notes about the drink: “Disgusting — matcha is not to my taste. Tiramisu is icky, overly sweet.”

8. Chocolate with Tiramisu Salted Cheese

This drink tasted pretty much like a chocolate shake with added artificial tiramisu flavor on top. Meh.

9. Milk Tea with Oreo and Tiramisu Salted Cheese

Simple is often the best, and this drink is a good example where too many toppings can entirely ruin something. None of us liked the addition of Oreo to the drink, which is already extremely sweet and rich from the milk tea and especially, the tiramisu salted cheese. The cookies also added a weird powdery texture that none of us liked. If you don’t heed our warning and go for this drink anyway, we recommend going with half or even quarter sweetness.

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Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...