If you’ve walked the 1.1 km stretch between Central and Town Hall Station recently, you’ll notice there are now more tea shops than ever; a proliferation the likes of which hasn’t been seen since froyo, 2011-12 (RIP). Although we might still cling to our favourite orders from the old guard of Chatime, EasyWay, Gong Cha and Sharetea, let’s see which one of the new kids on the block might become your latest diabetes-inducing indulgence.
Cheese, cheese, and more cheese
Cheese has been ladled on top of tea all over Sydney and boy, am I glad. ‘Cheese foam’ (or ‘milk foam’) is whipped cream cheese; it tastes like liquefied cheesecake and adds a rich and slightly savoury touch. Although described as a “foam”, this is perhaps a misnomer—it has a goopy texture akin to condensed milk and floats on top of the drink. Cheese tea is best enjoyed unmixed and without a straw.
Unlike the precariously soft plastic of the Chatime of yore, the new crop of tea shop packaging involves slimmer, taller cups of increased rigidity, probably to cope with containing hot drinks. Pokeable plastic seals are also being replaced by lids with openings, meaning you can do away with failed straw punctures and tea spillage.
In the past, getting tea meant buying, and enjoying, the beverage as a whole—its sweet, milky taste, flavoured syrup, maybe the addictive chew of pearls. Nowadays, there is greater emphasis on the tea itself. Rather than just ‘black’ or ‘green’ tea, one can choose from many different herbal and floral varieties, from oolong to osmanthus. Many shops display their tea leaves in cabinets or dispensers, and there’s lots of fancy coffee shop-like alchemy going on.
Although there is always a time and place for takeaway tea, tea shops are increasingly becoming somewhere you and your cheese foam moustache can linger. There’s more seating and even more Insta opps, with many establishments offering slightly disturbing mascots and quote walls to feed geotagging needs. Some places even have phone chargers.
CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice – 861 George Street, Ultimo
- Order: Pearl milk tea
- Price: $5.30, 500mL
- Value: 1.06c/mL
- Slogan: Smile Fresh Rich
- Bottom line: Gets the job done
Kitted out in its signature orange, CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice is on a roll, with three outlets between Ultimo and Town Hall Station. Right near a Central Station exit, the Ultimo branch is a well-positioned takeaway joint and nearly always has a line. Despite the crowd, the staff are calm and collected and the cashier even has matching orange eyeshadow. The tea is oddly reminiscent of cereal milk. The pearls are perfectly chewy and not too gunky, meaning they are relatively fresh.
Sexy Tea – 735 George Street, Haymarket
- Order: You lan (orchid) latte
- Price: $7.20, 500mL
- Value: 1.44c/mL
- Slogan: Modern Chinese tea
- Bottom line: TFW you know something isn’t worth it but you buy it anyway
The first thing I notice (aside from the questionable name) is the fact that it smells really, really good in here. This aroma is reflected in the quality of the decently strong and fragrant you lan black tea. However, the ‘latte’ aspect is as gimmicky as expected—topped with whipped cream and tiny pecan crumbs, neither brings much to this tea party. It comes in a paper cup, which I’m not sure I like, and the straw is far too small, delaying my instant gratification. This entire tea detour also results in me just missing my train, which is decidedly unsexy.
Cheer Tea – Broadway
- Order: Rose oolong cheese foam tea
- Price: $6.50, 500mL ($5.72 with student discount)
- Value: 1.3c/mL (1.14c/mL discounted)
- Slogan: Best cheesecake foam tea drinks
- Bottom line: 12% student discount
I cannot bring myself to support flower-flavoured food and drink because the result is usually soapy. The tea here isn’t strong enough to register as soapy though—in fact, the rose doesn’t really register at all. Coupled with the cheese, it oddly starts to taste like regular, fairly sweet milk tea, and I’m not sure I rate it. But given the student discount and handy proximity to uni, I might return to try some of Cheer Tea’s other options.
PaletTé – Shop 181, 569 George Street, CBD
- Order: Strawberry watermelon cheese foam tea
- Price: $7.50, 700mL
- Value: 1.07c/mL
- Slogan: N/A
- Bottom line: #aesthetic
Out of all the shops I visit, PaletTé provides the best ambience—there’s plush banquettes and decently-sized tables, a pink and turquoise colour scheme and two floral walls for your snapping pleasure. The fact that two boyfriends get pulled in here by their girlfriends while I wait for my order reinforces PaletTé’s IG cred. The strawberry watermelon cheese tea is more like a tea frappe, with the fruit and tea blended together and cheese ladled on top, resulting in a pleasing white-pink gradient. The fruit tea tastes pretty good at first but as the cheese permeates through the drink, it starts to taste more like a smoothie and I become confused. I also put my straw in the wrong way, so I ending up drinking this tea through the pointy end—the one you’re definitely not meant to drink through.
The Moment – 394 Sussex Street, Haymarket
- Order: Lemon grapefruit yakult with mango milk cap
- Price: $8.70, 700mL
- Value: 1.24c/mL
- Slogan: Fusion Concept Tea
- Bottom line: Do you like Peppa Pig
Taking a different tack to PaletTé, The Moment has gone for a moodier look, with polished concrete and muted grey. However, the most eye-catching aspect of The Moment’s décor is the abundance of Peppa Pig balloons. Peppa hovers above shelves, lines walls and forms a gigantic heart at the back of the shop. There is also a deceased, semi-deflated Peppa in a bin on the footpath outside. Considering that Peppa is a banned subversive icon in China, I don’t know what this all means. Not sure I’m sold on this drink but the mango cheese foam isn’t bad. The Moment also has magnetic phone holders so you can tea and text, which is a plus.
No Fail Fruit and Bubble Tea – 18 Goulburn Street, Haymarket
- Order: Cheese oreo milk tea
- Price: $5.80, 500mL
- Value: 1.16c/mL
- Slogan: This is a NO failure zone
- Bottom line: Nope
THIS DOES NOT TASTE GOOD. Garnished with cookie crumbs and a mini oreo, this tea is nowhere near as nice as it looks. The cookie flavour gives it a medicinal finish and the small crumbs made for uncomfortable drinking. It’s marginally improved if you mix the cheese through, and would probably benefit from less sugar. No Fail has no seats but doubles as a skincare shop, lending strength to the argument that milk tea is a beauty food. My drinking companion’s only comment is “it’s not Happy Lemon” (RIP).
Original Royaltea – 33 Goulburn Street, Haymarket
- Order: Brulee cheese tea
- Price: $7.00, 500mL
- Value: 1.40c/mL
- Slogan: A nice cup of tea, A kind of life
- Bottom line: Not bad
- Literally ‘cake milk tea’ in Chinese, this drink has been translated into ‘brulee’ milk tea in English. Further research tells me that cake milk tea is a blend of cream, cake mix and tea, and supposedly makes for a nicely marbled, rich drink. My brulee tea is indeed an interesting swirl of tan and yellow, although I can’t really taste any cake. The lid has a helpful sticker recommending you drink the cheese tea at a 45° angle, as well as a wider opening in addition to a straw hole, which makes it much easier to enjoy the cheese and tea together.
King-T – Shop 3, 405-411 Sussex Street
- Order: Uji matcha cheese foam
- Price: $6.00, 500mL
- Value: 1.20c/mL
- Slogan: New kind of tea
- Bottom line: King-T, king of my tea-loving heart
With a large lid opening that allows for peak foam moustache, King-T has superior packaging to match its superior tea. Despite full sugar, the matcha isn’t overly sweet and has good flavour, partnering well with the rich cream cheese. One downside is that it’s a tad icy—both the drink and the shop, which is colder than Fisher Library’s AC.
H Tea – 412 Sussex St, Haymarket
- Order: Four seasons fruit tea
- Price: $7.00, 700mL
- Value: 1c/mL
- Slogan: Tea of joy
- Bottom line: HD for H Tea
With a Chinese name that translates to ‘joy tea’, and assuming that the H of the English name stands for ‘happiness’, this tea brings me lots of joy indeed. The shop has a cute turquoise fit-out and cute drinks to match. The four seasons fruit tea is refreshing, with the strength of the tea and some passionfruit pulp tempering its sweetness (although less sugar wouldn’t go astray). It comes with no less than two slices each of orange, red and green apple, strawberry and watermelon, plus a fork taped to the side of the cup so you can pick out the remains once you’ve finished slurping. The arrangement of the fruit inside the cup resembles those plastic stickers with fake fruit that they stick on new water bottles, except this time, it’s REAL. Happy days.
Teascoo – 404 Sussex Street, Haymarket
- Order: Peach osmanthus tea soda
- Price: $5.80, 500mL
- Value: 1.16c/mL
- Slogan: Trend of tea
- Bottom line: A little flat
Mixed with a bit of carbonated water, tea soda is a pretty good idea in principle (the summer potential!!). However, Teascoo’s version literally falls flat, with barely any fizz. Despite the presence of a tea bag, the tea isn’t very strong or fragrant, and the drink has a Lipton-esque peach syrup taste. I dig the floral ice cube, until said ice cube melts and I suck a petal into my throat. Halp.
Tea Shop Express – HSBC Basement, 580 George Street
- Order: Pearl milk assam tea
- Price: $3.00, 650mL
- Value: 0.46c/mL
- Slogan: Another day, another tea
- Bottom line: $3 MILK TEA
Located just opposite Town Hall’s George Street ticket barriers, Tea Shop Express attracts looong queues, and with a daily two tea for $6 special, it’s not hard to see why. Thinking that the line must hint at superior tea, I join the crowd, excited at the potential. However, I soon discover Tea Shop Express’s secret: the lines are long because service is slow (no express to be found) and the tea is pretty mediocre. I wait for 20 minutes to receive my teas (just after they open for the day!), which is about 1.5-3 missed trains, depending on what line you live on. The tea is hideously sweet and the pearls mushy. The tea comes in an opaque cup, which quite literally obscures any pearl hunting towards the end of your beverage. Feel free to bring a friend to this place to milk the cheap deals. But you have been warned: if you bring a date here, you might not get a second.
Bubble Nini Tea – Shop 180, 8 Central Park Avenue, Chippendale
- Order: ‘So Matcha Love’ green tea with matcha pearls
- Price: $6.50, 500mL
- Value: 1.30c/mL
- Slogan: N/A
- Bottom line: FRESH PEARLS MADE ON SITE!
Bubble Nini Tea is part tea shop, part florist and boy, is the result as aesthetically pleasing as it sounds. Tucked away amongst the plethora of apartment developments found in Chippendale, Bubble Nini is overwhelmingly floral and serves very beautiful drinks—think top notch marbling, gradients, fresh fruit and colours. The taste of the matcha is satisfactorily authentic and not overly sweet. The main point of difference here is that Bubble Nini makes their own pearls fresh on site—mochi-like dough is pushed through a machine akin to a bakery bread slicer, displayed on the counter for all to witness. The result is that the pearls retain optimal chewiness and taste far less plastic-y than mass-manufactured ones. The ratio of pearl to drink could use some improvement—the regular-sized cup is a bit stout, which leaves you little room to manoeuvre your straw and suck up pearls as you go along.
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