So you think that the idea of cheese lattes sound crazy? If you had told any regular coffee drinker two decades ago that in 2016, an extremely popular coffee beverage would be a pumpkin-flavored beverage, they’d have laughed you out of the diner. Maybe even roughed you up in the parking lot for good measure. The idea, if you look at it objectively is, well, gross.
Pumpkin is a gourd. A big, stereotypically orange, earthy sphere of a vegetable. In general, it’s most commonly seen as a savory addition to pastas or other starchy delights. That is, except for its ubiquitous presence as an uber-popular Thanksgiving dessert. A popular after-dinner treat, where pumpkin plays a texture role, with sugar, cloves and cinnamon adding the “dessert” aspect — conscripted by Starbucks into a teeth-rotting beverage now considered to be one of their very best-sellers. The evolution in taste occurred because of savvy marketing and a lot of sugar, and we can now think of pumpkin in not only liquid form, but milky, frothy, espresso-tinged liquid form.
What if we went another step forward into the world of flavored coffee beverages? What if someone, somewhere, decided that the general public was ready for a more “savory” coffee beverage? What if they decided that what coffee really needed was cheese? What we’re trying to say is that a cheese latte exists. And it may not be as disgusting as it sounds. Let’s start from the beginning.
What exactly are cheese lattes? The combination of words brings together some horrendous combination of queso and coffee blended together and then topped with a frothy blast of gouda-flavored whipped cream — a market-tested monstrosity invented to grace the Instagram feeds of appalled consumers. And though the exact origin of the cheese latte (commonly called the honey cheese latte) seems to have been lost to the history books, the brief amount of information online points to those gastronomic mad scientists in Korea as the originators of the beverage.
Honey in Korea is a big deal. It’s been served to royalty as far back as 1392; it appears in the traditional half-moon rice cakes served during the country’s Great Mid-Autumn Festival; hell, the word “honey” even slips its way into how Korean’s write and talk about their enjoyment of food. Korean’s love honey in whatever form — powder, syrup, straight sticky, whatever — including the Honey Cheese Latte, a saccharine mixture of milk, honey and yes, cheese. It’s so popular that even 7-11 makes its own take-home variety. The concept seemingly has grown popular enough in Korea to reach across the Yellow Sea to China, where Starbucks has released it’s own “Lemon Cheese” variant on the idea.
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And though, yes, it is hard to wrap one’s head (or tastebuds) around the concept of cheese and latte mixed together into a beverage, a description from the Starbucks China Lemon Cheese Lattes page at least paints a picture of something slightly edible:
Bringing a touch of sunshine to your day with fresh lemon flavor and savory cheese balanced with classic Starbuck’s espresso, topped with citrus peels and mixed dried fruits.
Though it does boggle the mind to think that someone in some lab somewhere believed that this mixture of flavors would taste good super-heated and then covered with whipped cream, this description at least doesn’t make it sound completely inedible. More so, it feels like so many other heavily flavored coffee beverage concepts in which a company has taken a more complex food experience and tried to extract a simpler, sweeter version into a cup. Think of the PSL’s liquid form of pumpkin pie, but instead of cloves, gourds and cinnamon mashed into your Venti paper cup, the cheese latte is something a bit more experiential. Imagine a quaint French cafe, a block of hard cheese with a drizzle of honey, and a strong cup of coffee accompanying all of it. Now, take that image, toss it into a blender, throw in some steamed milk, squirt some whipped cream on top, throw a few grates of Pecorino on top, and voila — cheese latte. One online reviewer described it as, “a cheesecake milkshake waiting to happen.” Do with that what you will.
Let’s be honest: the words cheese and latte don’t go together. They are a separate experience that are perhaps sometimes served together, but never mixed. Well, at least for now. Thirty years ago we drank our coffee black and thought espresso was for Europeans. But look at us now. We obsess over pumpkin spice. We happily pound matcha tea-infused coffee beverages. Starbucks is rolling out a “Chili Mocha” this holiday season and we don’t even flinch. Sure, the combination of cheese and coffee isn’t one that’s graced our national palates as of yet, but the American tastebud is always evolving. A couple curly shaves of Parmesan and a touch of honey mixed with our coffee bevy might not be that far off in the future.