Hand-crushed lemon tea takes off in Hong Kong – we do taste test to find the best version

Although I am much more conscious of my lemon tea consumption these days, it is still my favourite Hong Kong-style drink. It evokes nostalgia, especially now that I live abroad.

Lam Heung Ling’s Causeway Bay store. The tea here is closest to the Hong Kong style of lemon tea. Photo: Riva Hiranand
From the traditional iced lemon tea you find in a cha chaan teng and the iconic mustard yellow VLT Tetra Paks to the classic 1980s Hi-C advertisements telling a story of puppy love, lemon tea is a long-standing part of the city’s culture.
And since mid-2023, there has been a new kid on the block: hand-crushed lemon tea. With the trend originating from mainland China, the influx of brands such as Linlee – which has more than 1,500 stores on the mainland, and a prime location on Lyndhurst Terrace in Central – and which have grown rapidly in popularity.
Thai green lemon tea and lemon black tea from The One. Photo: Riva Hiranand

Hand-crushed lemon tea is made with perfume lemons, a fragrant varietal that has a green rather than yellow rind, and grows in abundance in Guangdong province.

Perfume lemons differ from regular lemons in that the pulp is seedless, the peel sweet and the fruit aromatic.

The lemons are pounded by hand, mixed with ice, sugar and tea – ranging from green, black or red tea, to Four Seasons spring tea, to the ever-popular duck excrement oolong – before being shaken vigorously.

The result is a drink full of fruit that is refreshing, tart and sweet, with a subtle floral taste and distinct zesty fragrance.

While hand-crushed lemon tea does not taste the same as Hong Kong-style iced lemon tea, it does have an adjacent taste profile that will be familiar to many Hongkongers.

Lemon tea from Lam Heung Ling. Photo: Riva Hiranand

The popularity of hand-crushed lemon tea stores from the mainland is understandable, given Hong Kong’s existing association with lemon tea, but it is also down to a preference for healthier alternatives, with many brands extolling the health benefits and antioxidant properties of perfume lemons, tea-based drinks without additives, and drinks laden with fresh fruit and less sugar.

I am curious to find the best of the bunch, and venture to Mong Kok, in Kowloon, where I meet my fellow taste tester on the corner of Soy Street, armed with the signature lemon teas of nearby stores. We get some strange looks as we place them side by side on a railing to taste and photograph.

The verdict? Of the five we try, the tea from Lam Heung Ling (21B Soy Street, tel: 6317 9882) is closest to Hong Kong style. You get a bit of everything in one sip – a smooth, strong tea flavour, sweetness and tartness – all balanced.

A whole lemon is used in each cup, and you can taste it, too. The drinks are shaken well, resulting in a nice frothiness. And, if the signature is not enough, you can ramp up the intensity with its brilliantly named “scumbag” extra-strong lemon tea.

Linlee’s store in Central. Photo: Zoe Tsang

We also enjoy the lemon tea at Jo’s Cha (33B Soy Street, tel: 9493 0244); it is packed full of lemon chunks, which add a pleasant burst of zest to every sip.

Other drinks that are perfect for summer include the lemon tea with bitter melon, pandan and mint, or coriander and bitter melon.

The others range from cloying to unmemorable to as bitter as Chinese herbal medicine, but there are other options worth trying.

At Linlee (4 Sai Yeung Choi Street South, Mong Kok), the sea coconut iced lemon tea is a must-try, or cool down with the fresh fruit teas from The One (36-42 Soy Street, tel: 9591 6810).

For a sweet and savoury hit, opt for the sea salt lemon tea. At LMM (51 Bute Street, Prince Edward, tel: 9377 7836), the golden egg lemon tea features wampee, a sweet and sour citrus fruit.

LMM in Mong Kok. Here, the golden egg lemon tea features wampee, a sweet and sour citrus fruit. Photo: Riva Hiranand

And if you have never tried duck excrement dancong oolong, it is on offer at almost every store, and makes a great tea base. (To be clear, there is no excrement involved; the story goes that a farmer who discovered it claimed he used duck manure to achieve its unique aroma in an attempt to ward others off learning how to grow it.)

We asked one of the directors of Lam Heung Ling Hong Kong what makes the perfect cup.

Damon Huang Hui-min walks me through their process: “The lemons are delivered fresh every day, and are washed, then brushed to release flavour from the peel.

“The tea is brewed in the traditional cha chaan teng style and then the lemon is hand-crushed and shaken with syrup before being hand-shaken with ice and tea,” he says.

“There is a golden ratio of ice, lemon and tea. The perfect cup involves all this as well as high-quality tea, lemons and the unique skills to mix them together.”

Lam Heung Ling prides itself on its unique blend of tea, perfume lemon and ice. Photo: Lam Heung Ling

Lam Heung Ling is known for its cute cartoon lemon mascot and eye-catching store designs, with plenty of photo opportunities and retro touches.

At its Stanley Street shop in Central, three girls giggle as they pose for selfies in the lemon-shaped mirror, with a glowing neon sign above them.

The brand hails from Guangdong, and opened its first Hong Kong store in May 2023 in Mong Kok. It now has 11 locations in the city, including at the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui and in the newly opened Airside mall, in Kai Tak.

Huang and co-directors Will Li Wang-sum and Jack Pang Tse-chun plan to stand out from the slew of competitors with a store design that pays homage to Hong Kong.

A cup of Linlee’s signature hand-crushed lemon tea from its Central store. Photo: Riva Hiranand

“We worked with local designers who know and love Hong Kong. We strongly believe an immersive experience is great for customers, but also shows our respect to the city where we were born and raised,” says Huang.

“Working with local designers helped us make each store truly individual, and convey how much we love Hong Kong culture.”

Huang says the market is ready for something more health-conscious than milk tea and he aims to have 18 stores in Hong Kong (one for every district, perhaps?) by the year end to cater to this growing trend.

Judging by the crowds at these tea shops in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, and given we are approaching yet another unbearably hot summer season, it is probably safe to say that the hand-crushed lemon tea trend is smashing it right now.


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