By Calista Chong (18A01A) and Ashley Tan (18A13A), with guest contributions by Isabel Toh (18A13A) and Sophie Low (18S07A)
When we received a Whatsapp group message from a friend announcing that all Gong Cha outlets would be bowing out of Singapore by 5 June, there were several panicked reactions bemoaning the loss of a fallen brother. Yet, it seems that this sentiment was not an individualistic one – in fact, it was shared by many Singaporeans, some of whom queued patiently for their favourite Gong Cha drink for the last time at its last standing outlet on 4 June.
First introduced to Singapore in 1992, the bubble tea craze has slowly risen over the course of the 21st century. In 2011, the bubble tea wave took our city by storm, with stores popping up in virtually every neighbourhood and mall. Eventually, what came next was the purging of stores – lesser-known stores shuttered their doors, leaving just a few brand names that we are familiar with today – Gong Cha, Koi and Blackball. With Gong Cha being such an established brand in Singapore (almost synonymous with the term “Bubble Tea”), it seemed unfathomable that it would ever leave our shores.
However, the saying “all good things must come to an end” proved true once again, with Gong Cha announcing that it would be replaced by homegrown tea brand LiHO. To check out the new brand for ourselves, Raffles Press headed down to LiHO for a quick taste test.
Classic Milk Tea + Pearl (M: $3.30)
“HO BO” rating: 2/5
Trying her very best to recreate what has been lost, this reviewer ordered the drink as similarly as she would have from Gong Cha – Classic Milk Tea with pearls, 0% sugar, with less ice. But, as much as it pains her to say this, the drinks from the two stores tasted miles apart.
The milk tea from LiHO was quite honestly, more milk than tea. While the milkiness of the drink was refreshing, it was sorely lacking in terms of the tea flavour, and this made the drink really plain. Even without sugar in Gong Cha’s milk tea, there had existed a hint of aromatic fragrance that came with the drink. The dilution in Gong Cha’s successor was further compounded when the ice in the drink melted. Bluntly speaking, this reviewer felt that she was basically drinking milk with water (with the occasional tapioca ball) which, safe to say, was not pleasant at all.
While this reviewer understands that LiHO is trying to create a brand name for itself, the vast change in the composition of tea and milk had more repercussions than it may have realised. She finds it regrettable that she is no longer able to enjoy a healthy and refreshing cup of no-sugar-added bubble tea with the exit of Gong Cha, as it seems that her go-to combination of classic milk tea with pearls is rather disappointing under LiHO’s brand.
Classic Earl Grey Milk Tea + Pearl (M: $3.40)
“HO BO” rating: 3/5
With Gong Cha’s Earl Grey Milk Tea being lauded as a fan favourite previously, we simply had to try LiHO’s version of this bubble tea classic to assess whether it would match up to the standards of its predecessor. While this drink fit the typical description of an earl grey bubble tea drink, it contained a milkier taste distinct from Gong Cha’s version, which conventionally infuses stronger hints of the tea flavour.
The deciding factor, however, boiled down to the quality of pearls that LiHO had to offer. In this regard, this reviewer was rather disappointed. The portion of tapioca pearls provided was sufficient for a medium-sized bubble tea drink, but the quality of pearls was, unfortunately, substandard. As a self-proclaimed bubble tea connoisseur, this reviewer felt that the pearls were too hard and stiff, a clear signifier of pearls that have either been overcooked or kept in the refrigerator for too long. In fact, it took several forceful chews before the pearls finally disintegrated, making it a rather unpleasant experience.
However, if you are simply pining for a standard earl grey milk tea drink (without the tapioca pearls) to quench your thirst, then LiHO may be a bubble tea store that can sufficiently satisfy your needs.
LiHO Royal Milk Guan Yin + Pearl (M: $4.00)
“HO BO” rating: 3/5
This reputedly conservative reviewer chose to stick to a classic – good ol’ milk tea (she might have also picked it because it sounded fairly regal.)
LiHO’s Royal Milk Guan Yin is one of the popular drinks on the menu that is brewed from Tie Guan Yin (translated: “Iron Goddess”), a premium variety of Chinese Oolong Tea. It was also recommended for diehard fans of Gong Cha’s Alisan Tea, which was previously renowned for its zero-calorie status.
Succinctly put, the drink was satisfying. The reviewer could taste the distinct flavour of Tie Guan Yin, although its tartness was sadly drowned by the sugar overload (bewitched by the numerous choices available, she forgot to specify the sugar level of her drink). The pearls served as a pleasant complement to the tea, but this reviewer’s only grouse is that the pearls were too stiff for her liking.
Cheese Melon Tea (M: $4.10)
“HO BO” rating: 4/5
Having heard that every LiHO outlet sells only 50 cups of cheese teas a day, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to find that this elusive cheese drink was still available when she approached the counter at 7pm. As this reviewer cannot imagine having both cheese and tea in the same cup, she ordered a cup of Cheese Melon Tea (100% sugar with no ice because she is a sugar addict) and expected the worst.
The cup of Cheese Melon Tea came in two layers – winter melon tea at the bottom and a layer of cheese at the top. The winter melon tea was rather mediocre, similar to Yeo’s Winter Melon Drink. While many would expect the layer of cheese to be thick and flavourful like melted cheese, it was actually a foamy layer which contained hints of salt, cheese and milk. Overall, the drink was not overpowering, but instead offered a light and creamy taste.
Mixing of the cheese and melon tea proved to be an arduous task as the cheese simply refused to diffuse into the cold tea. It took 5 minutes of non-stop stirring for the layer of white cheese to dissolve into a cup of cloudy brown coloured liquid. While this may not sound particularly appetizing, the cheese actually made the otherwise plain winter melon tea thicker, more fragrant, and less sweet. Surprisingly, both elements of cheese and tea worked well together to create a unique, milky, taste-bud pleasing winter melon tea that one can only find at LiHO. While some may still be trying to wrap their heads around the concept of having cheese in tea, LiHO’s new innovation is definitely worth a try despite its steep price.
Our Final Verdict
All in all, there were both hits and misses. The reviewers sincerely hope that such misses are attributable to the fact that LiHO has only recently started its operations, and that by taking into account feedback from the Singapore populace, evolve itself into a truly homegrown brand that resonates with every Singaporean’s tastebuds.