It's a typical weekday morning in the metropolis. Pouring down the foggy hills, thronging the streets, rushing toward buses, trains, and ferryboats that will bear them to school and work, locals wearing suits, uniforms, and casuals carry nearly identical cups containing nearly identical drinks.
The metropolis is not Oakland or San Francisco but Hong Kong. The drink is not coffee but milk tea.
Thick, sweet, silkily creamy, and eye-poppingly strong, this ancient Chinese/British colonial hybrid is as ubiquitous over there as coffee is here, and as infused into culture, conversation, and daily life. Making headway westward, it's now served at chains such as Quickly and Tapioca Express, Oakland Chinatown tea shops such as the Sweet Booth, Santa Anna, ChaTime, and Shooting Star Café, and trendy cafes such as Berkeley's Asha Tea House. Will grown-up, silky-smooth Hong Kong milk tea be the next tannic tsunami, surpassing moody chai and clown-car-in-every-cup boba?
"For Hong Kong people, milk tea feels like a birthright," said Roy Fong, a certified tea master and the owner of Berkeley's Imperial Tea Court. "No matter how poor you are, you can afford to drink milk tea. It's one of those rare luxuries that everyone can share."
At countless Hong Kong restaurants and streetside stalls — including McDonald's and Starbucks — milk tea is made more or less like this:
Black tea — traditionally Sri Lankan, typically fine-grained CTC (crush-tear-curl)-grade, not full-leaf — is boiled for three minutes. Sometimes eggshells are boiled with the tea to add calcium and texture while cutting acidity. Sometimes the tea is boiled longer, and sometimes it is boiled twice.
Then it's filtered repeatedly through a fine-meshed, sock-like cloth bag — which is why milk tea is also called "pantyhose tea" and "silk-stocking tea." Finally, it is poured from a great height into cups, either before or after lots of canned milk: evaporated, condensed, or both. Sugar is added to taste. Flavored milk teas are a more recent variation, as is yuanyong, a blend of coffee and milk tea.
Many aspects of this technique would in any other tea context be anathema. And don't try it at home unless you have lots of space, lots of tea, lots of time, a long dangly filter, and lots of pots.
"Hong Kong is unique in that most homes there are very, very small and most kitchens are ultra-tiny," said Fong. "You just go downstairs and buy your milk tea." A Taoist priest and former Head of Research & Development for the International Tea Masters Association, he has loved this drink for as long as he can remember.
"Canned milk is used in milk tea because fresh milk was hard to get in Hong Kong until fairly recently. When I was a kid, most kitchens didn't have refrigerators."
At Asha in Berkeley, Hong Kong milk tea is made sans stocking, with local, sustainable Clover Stornetta half-and-half, canned condensed milk, and an Assam-influenced secret tea blend so brisk as to be almost chocolatey, poured back and forth repeatedly from aeronautical heights to create a firm caramel-colored foam. From the first triple-strength sip, it's a fast floral free-fall so silkily elegant as to feel almost forbidden. Ten sips in, and you feel ready to power through the whole day.
"Every tea place in Hong Kong has its own secret recipe and its own technique," Fong said. "Differences include the types of tea used and how much is used. If you use too much tea, it becomes too astringent. Some people believe that agitating the water and shaking the stocking makes the tea taste better. Then there's temperature. You can't appreciate milk tea's smooth texture if it's served boiling hot.
"Then there's how long it sits after it's brewed. If it sits too long, it can develop a slimy texture. It's best to make milk tea, sell the whole pot right away, then make a fresh pot. You can make the best tea on earth, but after it's been sitting around for half an hour, nobody wants it anymore.
"It's really simple, but it also isn't," Fong said, laughing.
Fong's personal milk-tea blend, developed "literally after 56 years of drinking milk tea," comprises "a little Assam, a little Darjeeling, and a little Yunnan" — all full-leaf, not CTC.
"When I was a child, milk tea was considered top-notch only if it was made entirely with Sri Lankan tea, which was then called Ceylon tea. We looked at Ceylon black tea as the ultimate. Back then, we didn't have the luxury of choices that we have now."
But diversity has its downside, he said.
"Now that so many different drinks are available — not just teas but all types of drinks — the quality of milk tea made in Hong Kong is dropping. Most people in Hong Kong these days can make an acceptable cup of milk tea, but not a great cup. The next generation will have no idea that great cups of milk tea ever existed. So they won't care."
David Lau is a member of that next generation, but he cares. He opened Asha in July — transforming a former rug store into a lofty, airy, concrete-walled postmodern shrine to ancient flavors and time-tested techniques — in hopes of helping locals become as aware of tea's myriad subtleties as they are of the subtleties in coffee and wine.
"That's what's so special about tea as it is enjoyed in Asia," Lau said. "Making it, serving it, drinking it, discussing it — it's a social, communal experience."
Having sampled milk tea during childhood visits to Hong Kong but always finding it too strong, he rediscovered it while working in China after earning an engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania. His job took him frequently to Hong Kong — "where my friends and I would go out for milk tea just as friends here go out for coffee."
"At long last, as an adult, I took a liking to tea — to tea in general and to milk tea in particular. Now milk tea is getting global. At Asha, we make our milk tea exactly as we would drink it ourselves." In a world where some of your lower-end tea stalls make their milk teas with the cheapest tea bags and even non-dairy creamer, "both flavor and sourcing matter a lot to me," Lau said solemnly.
"Hong Kong milk tea is the national drink of the Hong Kong salaryman. You watch them walking to work, carrying their cups of milk tea. It satisfies and gives you a good boost when that's exactly what you need."
If caffeinated drinks were human, Hong Kong milk tea would be a beautiful heavyweight boxer wearing a camel's-hair sweater of the world's softest cashmere. Say what you will about colonialism, but it brought us sweet, thick milk in cans.