Coffee or Tea? With This Drink, You Get Both

Hong Kong milk tea
Hong Kong milk tea is the main ingredient in yuenyeung. CityFoodsters/Flickr

For most people around the world, it's the first question of the day: Coffee or tea?

Some people might not care how they get their caffeine, as long as they get it. But for others, the answer is part of their identity, and they are passionate when it comes to defending their preferred beverage as the superior option.

There's a genre of caffeinated beverages that defy the usual definitions. These drinks go by different names: yuenyeung in Cantonese-speaking regions, kopi cham in the Malay word, and spreeze in Ethiopia. Savvy coffee-shop patrons can even order off-menu options such as "dirty chai," which is a chai tea spiked with a shot of espresso.

These beverages all have one thing in common: they contain both coffee and tea.

The world's 2 most popular beverages in one cup

Cafe in hong kong with yuenyeung
Coffee with milk tea is served in local cafes known as cha chaan teng in Hong Kong. CityFoodsters/Flickr

Perhaps you think the idea of a coffee-tea mixture is an unholy union or the world’s greatest invention. This family of drinks is quite common in certain parts of the world. In places like Hong Kong, there is even a children’s version made with Ovaltine.

The recipe for coffee with tea varies from place to place. The most common version, according to Saveur, comes from street stalls and local cafes in Hong Kong and Macau. These places, known as cha chaan tengs, have been serving a mixture of roughly two parts milk tea (black tea and condensed milk) to one part coffee for nearly a century. Some cafes use evaporated milk and sugar instead of sweetened condensed milk. The mixture can be served hot or over ice, with the preferred temperature usually depending on the weather.

The idea has spread to other parts of Asia as well. A division of beverage giant Asahi has mass-produced Wonda Tea Coffee, which is showing up on grocery store shelves in droves, according to Japan Today. It got a marketing push from Japanese pop star and legendary comedian Takeshi Kitano.

Why are ducks a symbol of yuenyeung?

Mandarin duck pair
The male Mandarin duck is easy to spot: He's the one with all the flashy colors. Maciej Olszewski/Shutterstock

The Chinese name for coffee with tea refers to Mandarin ducks, which are called yuānyāng in Mandarin Chinese and yuenyeung in the Cantonese dialect. Male and female ducks of this particular species are very different in appearance. Yuen refers to the colorful male ducks and yeung to the females, which sport more muted colors. The name is a nod to the mismatched union of coffee and tea. If you want to take the analogy further, Mandarin ducks usually mate for life, meaning the mismatched pairing works much better than you might expect.

So how do you make it?

Purists may tell you that yuenyeung is best in a cha chaan teng in Hong Kong. Here, the ideal mixture is roughly seven parts milk tea to three parts coffee. The seven-to-three ratio is supposed to give both the coffee and tea a full flavor profile without having one taste overpower the other. The milk tea is made with strong black tea and either sweetened condensed milk or evaporated milk and sugar. Some recipes call for makers to intentionally over-steep the tea (for at least six minutes instead of the usual three to four minutes) to create a stronger taste that can stand up to the thick, sweet milk component. Other recipes call for boiling the tea leaves in the water rather than steeping them.

The resulting drink has bitter notes that are matched by the sweetness and thickness of the milk. If the yuenyeung tastes too astringent because of the oversteeped tea, you can correct it by adding more condensed milk.

Most recipes call for regular drip coffee made with dark roasted bean (such as an espresso roast or French roast). The link above to Saveur as one option and here's another recipe from The Spruce Eats.

A global drink

kopi cham in Singapore
In Singapore and Malaysia, coffee with milk tea is called kopi cham. mailer diablo/Wikimedia Commons

You will definitely come across this beverage in Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese restaurants around the world may have variations. In Malaysia and Singapore, you will find kopi cham, which is similar to yuenyueng. Though there are some coffee and tea beverages in the United States, none have developed beyond independent variations that have made their way to coffee shops or restaurants. The most common option in this genre is chai with espresso.

One yeunyueng variation that earns comparisons to the Hong Kong version comes from the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia. While the East African nation is usually associated with coffee, black tea is also popular, and people often drink it with spices, not unlike Indian chai.

While Starbucks did offer a yuenyeung frappuccino in East Asia a while ago, most mainstream coffee shops do not have a coffee-and-tea combo on the menu.

That said, all the ingredients you need to create a homemade coffee-tea beverage are widely available almost anywhere in the world, so if you want to experiment with this unexpected marriage of these two popular caffeinated beverages, just give it a try at home.