Are LiHo Teas As Good As Gong Cha’s? And Are Its Cheese Teas As Strange As They Sound?

See you later Gong Cha, how’re you doing, LiHo? The latter is a new bubble tea chain by the Taiwanese brand’s Singapore franchise parent company. We sample its offerings — including cheese foam tea — and deliver our verdict.

Backstory: You’ve probably seen photos of the beer-like, foamy beverage floating around on social media lately. And you might have thought: “Cheese tea, ew. But nice or not?” Cheese teas are concoctions that include milk teas or fruit smoothies topped with a layer of creamy cheese foam. This bizarre-sounding drink, which first originated in China a few years ago and is wildly popular there and in countries like Malaysia, has finally made it to Singapore via LiHo.

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Li-who? LiHo is a new Singaporean brand which took over bubble tea chain Gong Cha. The popular Taiwanese tea chain is ceasing local operations after eight years here. Its Singapore franchise company, RTG Holdings, decided to stop franchising the Taiwanese teas after its contract with Gong Cha’s parent company expired last year. Instead, RTG Holdings’ managing director Rodney Tang, 45, created his own brand called LiHo to replace Gong Cha’s 80 outlets islandwide. Some 30 outlets are currently operational under the LiHo revamp, and all outlets will complete their makeover by June 5. Another eight new outlets will follow.

The menu: LiHo’s menu is slightly smaller than Gong Cha’s, but good news: Gong Cha classic mainstays like Pearl Milk Tea and Earl Grey Milk Tea with toppings like white pearls, ai yu jelly and custard pudding are still available. LiHo, the name taken from a friendly Hokkien greeting which means “How are you?”, also has a Chinese name that sounds similar to “drink immediately” in Mandarin. After all, it offers drinks capped with cheese foam that you should, um, down immediately.

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The cheese drinks: There are nine cheesy offerings on the menu, and only 50 cups are available daily per outlet as the foam is made in small batches to maintain its freshness. This thick topping comprises three types of melted cheese including gouda, plus cream and milk whipped with an electric whisk into a thick froth. It is then generously spooned into a cup and, strangely, covered with a plastic lid —  it would’ve been better visually and also texture-wise to leave the cup uncovered so the foam can brush against one’s lips like the head on a mug of beer.

The Cheese Teas
cheese yam smoothie

Cheese Yam Smoothie, $6.90 a cup (Most Instagram-Worthy!)
Cheese and yam sound as unlikely a couple as Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston. But unlike the celeb couple, this pair actually do belong together. This smoothie is a pretty shade of pale purple from the starchy tuber blended with ice and milk, then dolloped with a thick cap of cheese foam. Yellow custard pudding ($0.70) is added for dramatic Instagram effect.

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Cheese Yam Smoothie

There are three ways to drink this: remove the cup’s plastic lid to slurp it and get a white ‘moustache', or sip the foam daintily from a tiny opening on the lid. You could also poke a straw through the lid to get to the smoothie and custard first. If you’re a cheese foam virgin, we recommend sipping it through the lid’s small opening first. This allows you to get used to the foam’s sweet-savoury taste — it's like an extremely airy, salty whipped cream cheese with notes of mature cheddar. Drink it pronto so the foam doesn’t go flat.

We also like the yam-scented milkshake-like smoothie beneath with pillowy custard chunks, even though it quickly became like a too-rich liquefied cheesecake when paired with the briny foam. Quite jelak after a while, so go with a lighter base like tea (see below) instead of a smoothie.
cheese jing syuan tea

Cheese Jing Syuan Tea, from $4.10 a cup 
This comes hot or cold. Gong Cha’s crowd-pleasing Alishan Tea, a type of oolong tea, has been replaced by a similar brew called Jin Xuan (named Jing Syuan at LiHo). Both Alishan and Jin Xuan tea are characterised by its floral profiles. This delicately flavoured Jing Syuan is less potent than Gong Cha’s Alishan. But it goes surprisingly well with the cheese foam. The frothy head is slightly softer in the hot version of this drink, and adds a touch of luxurious creaminess to the fragrant, uber-milky tea with each sip. Pretty comforting.  

The Other Teas
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Milk Tea With Pearls 

Classic Milk Tea with Pearls, from $3.30 a cup
We love Gong Cha’s milk tea for its robust, good quality leaves. LiHo’s version is a lot milkier, lightly accentuated with whiffs of black tea and equally smooth, chewy tapioca pearls. It’s great for people who adore their bubble tea super creamy (similar to Koi’s version). But if you prefer your milk tea more balanced, you may be slightly disappointed with this.

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Earl Grey Milk Tea with 3M Toppings

Earl Grey Milk Tea with 3M Toppings, from $4.20 a cup
LiHo’s ‘3M’ toppings include pearls, grass jelly and custard pudding. The earl grey’s perfume in this is distinctive, though the milk jostles for our taste buds’ attention. Meanwhile, the wobbly custard pudding in this is great, but the grass jelly is softer than Gong Cha’s (we prefer the latter’s firmer texture).

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Fresh Lemon Juice & Aloe Cube

Fresh Lemon Juice & Aloe Cube, from $3.50 a cup
Not a fan of cheese, milk, or even tea? There are eight types of citrusy beverages here too, and three offerings with Vitagen (from $3.60 a cup). This Lemon Juice with crunchy aloe bits tastes like a crisp lemonade that’s not too sweet. Refreshing, if a bit boring.

Bottom line: Surprise, surprise, the cheese tea here is fun to drink and even quite yummy.  It's a bit like having a bite of creamy cheese tart chased down with a sip of tea. But are LiHo’s other offerings as tasty as Gong Cha’s? The jury’s still out on this. We don’t like the brand’s tackier packaging, but we kinda enjoyed its lighter-tasting, creamier milk teas which are similar to Koi's, though folks who love Gong Cha's more potent brews may disagree.

LiHo, 22 outlets including #03-29/30 Bugis+, 201 Victoria St, S188067. Tel: 6273-7633.

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