Bubble tea (also known as pearl milk tea, bubble milk tea, or boba tea or boba; Chinese: 珍珠奶茶; pinyin: zhēn zhū nǎi chá, 波霸奶茶; bō bà nǎi chá; or 泡泡茶; pào pào chá in Singapore) is a tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s. It most commonly consists of tea accompanied by chewy tapioca balls ("boba" or "pearls"), but it can be made with other toppings as well.
Pearl milk tea
Boba milk tea
Boba nai cha
|Place of origin||Taiwan|
|Region or state||Worldwide|
|Serving temperature||Cold or hot|
|Main ingredients||Tapioca, milk, creamer, brewed tea, sugar, flavorings|
Bubble tea has many varieties and flavors, but the two most popular varieties are black pearl milk tea and green pearl milk tea ("pearl" signifies the tapioca balls at the bottom).
Bubble teas fall under two categories: teas without milk and milk teas. Both varieties come with a choice of black, green, or oolong tea as the base. Milk teas usually include condensed milk, powdered milk, almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, 2% milk, skim milk, or fresh milk.
The oldest known bubble tea drink consisted of a mixture of hot Taiwanese black tea, tapioca pearls (Chinese: 粉圓; pinyin: fěn yuán; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: hún-înn), condensed milk, and syrup (Chinese: 糖漿; pinyin: táng jiāng) or honey. Now, bubble tea is most commonly served cold. The tapioca pearls that make bubble tea so unique were originally made from the starch of the cassava, a tropical shrub known for its starchy roots which was introduced to Taiwan from South America during Japanese colonial rule. Larger pearls (Chinese: 波霸/黑珍珠; pinyin: bō bà/hēi zhēn zhū) quickly replaced these.
Today, there are some cafés that specialize in bubble tea production. Some cafés use plastic lids, but more authentic bubble tea shops serve drinks using a machine to seal the top of the cup with heated plastic cellophane. The latter method allows the tea to be shaken in the serving cup and makes it spill-free until a person is ready to drink it. The cellophane is then pierced with an oversize straw, now referred to as a boba straw, which is larger than a typical drinking straw to allow the toppings to pass through.
Due to its popularity, bubble tea has inspired a variety of bubble tea flavored snacks such as bubble tea ice cream and bubble tea candy. The high increase of bubble tea demand and its related industry can provide opportunities for possible market expansion. The market size of bubble tea was valued at $2.4 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $4.3 billion by the end of 2027. Some of the largest global bubble tea chains include: Chatime, CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice and Gong Cha.
Bubble tea comes in many variations which usually consist of black tea, green tea, oolong tea, and sometimes white tea. Another variation, yuenyeung, (Chinese: 鴛鴦, named after the Mandarin duck) originated in Hong Kong and consists of black tea, coffee, and milk.
Tapioca pearls (boba) are the most common ingredient, although there are other ways to make the chewy spheres found in bubble tea. The pearls vary in color according to the ingredients mixed in with the tapioca. Most pearls are black from brown sugar.
Jelly comes in different shapes: small cubes, stars, or rectangular strips, and flavors such as coconut jelly, konjac, lychee, grass jelly, mango, coffee and green tea. Azuki bean or mung bean paste, typical toppings for Taiwanese shaved ice desserts, give bubble tea an added subtle flavor as well as texture. Aloe, egg pudding (custard), grass jelly, and sago also can be found in many bubble tea shops. Popping boba, or spheres that have fruit juices or syrups inside them, are other popular bubble tea toppings. Flavors include mango, strawberry, coconut, kiwi and honey melon.
Bubble tea shops often give customers the option of choosing the amount of ice or sugar in their drink. Sugar level is usually specified in percentages (e.g. 25%, 50%, 75%, 100%), and ice level is usually specified ordinally (e.g. no ice, less ice, normal ice), though they can both be specified ordinally in some shops.
In Southeast Asia, bubble tea is traditionally packaged in a plastic takeaway cup, sealed with plastic or a rounded cap. New entrants into the market have attempted to distinguish their products by packaging it in bottles and other interesting shapes. Some have even done away with the bottle and used plastic sealed bags. Nevertheless, the traditional plastic takeaway cup with a sealed cap is still the most ubiquitous packaging method.
The traditional way of bubble tea preparation is to mix the ingredients (sugar, powders and other flavorants) together using a bubble tea shaker cup, by hand.
Many present-day bubble tea shops use a bubble tea shaker machine. This eliminates the need for humans to shake the bubble tea by hand. It also reduces manpower needs as multiple cups of bubble tea may be prepared by a single human.
One bubble tea shop in Taiwan, named Jhu Dong Auto Tea, has taken the human-out-of-the-loop approach. The store does not rely on human manpower at all. All stages of the bubble tea sales process, from ordering, to making, to collection, is fully automated.
There are two competing stories for the discovery of bubble tea. The Hanlin Tea Room of Tainan claims that bubble tea was invented in 1986 when teahouse owner Tu Tsong-he was inspired by white tapioca balls he saw in the local market of Ah-bó-liâu (鴨母寮, or Yamuliao in Mandarin) . He later made tea using these traditional Taiwanese snacks. This resulted in what is known as "pearl tea".
Another claim for the invention of bubble tea comes from the Chun Shui Tang tea room in Taichung. Its founder, Liu Han-Chieh, began serving Chinese tea cold after she observed coffee was served cold in Japan while on a visit in the 1980s. The new style of serving tea propelled his business, and multiple chains serving this tea were established. The company’s product development manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, said she created the first bubble tea in 1988 when she poured tapioca balls into her tea during a staff meeting and encouraged others to drink it. The beverage was well received by everyone at the meeting, leading to its inclusion on the menu. It ultimately became the franchise's top-selling product.
In the 1990s, bubble tea spread all over East and Southeast Asia with its ever-growing popularity. In regions like Hong Kong, Mainland China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, etc., the bubble tea trend expanded rapidly among young people. In some popular shops, people would line up for more than thirty minutes to get a cup of the drink. In recent years, the mania for bubble tea has gone beyond the beverage itself, with boba lovers inventing various bubble tea food such as bubble tea ice cream, bubble tea pizza, bubble tea toast, bubble tea sushi, bubble tea ramen, etc.
In Taiwan, bubble tea has become more than a beverage, but an enduring icon of the culture and food history for the nation. In 2020, the date April 30 was officially declared as National Bubble Tea Day in Taiwan. That same year, the image of bubble tea was proposed as an alternative cover design for Taiwan’s passport. According to Al Jazeera, bubble tea has become synonymous with Taiwan and is an important symbol of Taiwanese identity both domestically and internationally.
Hong Kong is famous for its traditional Hong Kong-style milk tea, which is made with brewed black tea and condensed milk. While milk tea has long become integrated into people’s daily life, the expansion of Taiwanese bubble tea chains, including Tiger Sugar, Youiccha, and Xing Fu Tang, into Hong Kong created a new wave for “boba tea”.
Since the idea of adding tapioca pearls into milk tea was introduced into China in the 1990s, bubble tea has increased its popularity. It is estimated that the consumption of bubble tea is 5 times that of coffee in the recent years. According to data from QianZhen Industry Research Institute, the value of the tea-related beverage market in China has reached 53.7 billion yuan (about $7.63 billion) in 2018. While bubble tea chains from Taiwan (e.g., Gong Cha and Coco) are still popular, more local brands, like Yi Dian Dian, Nayuki, Hey Tea, etc., are now dominating the market.
In China, young people’s growing obsession with bubble tea shaped their way of social interaction. Buying someone a cup of bubble tea has become a new way of thanking someone informally. It is also a favored topic among friends and on social media.
Bubble tea is loved by many Singaporeans. It is also known locally in Chinese as 泡泡茶 (Pinyin: pào pào chá), although the English term is widely used as well.
The drink was first sold in Singapore as early as the 1980s but only surged in popularity around the turn of the century. Then, bubble tea shops were mostly locally owned or by Taiwanese immigrants. Shops were reportedly able to sell 1,000 to 1,500 cups a day.
However, the popularity of bubble tea waned in the early 2000s. As a result, most of the bubble tea shops were closed and bubble tea lost its popularity by 2003. It would take a number of years before it experienced a resurgence as chains such as Gong Cha, Liho and KOI entered the Singapore market.
In 2018, the interest in bubble tea rose further again at an unprecedented speed in Singapore, as new brands like The Alley and Tiger Sugar entered the market, as well as local brand BoberTea; social media also played an important role in driving this renaissance of bubble tea. Locally made non-drink related bubble tea products such as bubble tea cosmetics, bubble tea cake rolls, pancakes and buns have also popped up in the country.
The first bubble tea shop opened in Mauritius in the late 2012 and since then, there is almost a bubble tea shop in almost every mall on the island. The bubble tea shop became a popular place for teenagers to hangout.
In the 1990s, Taiwanese immigrants opened the first bubble tea shop, Fantasia Coffee & Tea, in Cupertino, California. Since then, chains like Tapioca Express, Quickly, Lollicup and Q-Cup emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, bringing the Taiwanese bubble tea trend to the US. Within the Asian American community, bubble tea is commonly known under its colloquial term "boba".
As the beverage gained popularity in the US, it gradually became more than a drink, but a cultural identity for Asian Americans. This phenomenon was referred to as “boba life” by Chinese-American brothers Andrew and David Fung in their music video, “Bobalife,” released in 2013. Boba symbolizes a subculture that Asian Americans as social minorities could define themselves as, and “boba life” is reflection of their desire for both cultural and political recognition.
Other regions with large concentrations of bubble tea restaurants in the United States are the Northeast and Southwest. This is reflected in the coffeehouse-style teahouse chains that originate from the regions, such as Boba Tea Company from Albuquerque, New Mexico, No. 1 Boba Tea in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Kung Fu Tea from New York City. Albuquerque and Las Vegas have a large concentrations of boba tea restaurants, as the drink is popular especially among the Hispano, Navajo, Pueblo, and other Native American, Hispanic and Latino American communities in the Southwest.
A massive shipping and supply chain crisis on the U.S. West coast, coupled with the obstruction of the Suez Canal in March 2021, caused a shortage of tapioca pearls for bubble tea shops in the U.S. and Canada.
Potential health concerns
In July 2019, Singapore's Mount Alvernia Hospital warned against the sugar content of bubble tea since the drink had become extremely popular in Singapore. While it acknowledged the benefits of drinking green tea and black tea in reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer, respectively, the hospital cautions the addition of other ingredients like non-dairy creamer and toppings in the tea, could raise the fat and sugar content of the tea and increase the risk of chronic diseases. Non-dairy creamer is a milk substitute that contains trans fat in the form of hydrogenated palm oil. The hospital warned that this oil has been strongly correlated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Cuisine of Taiwan
- Chinese tea culture
- Hong Kong tea culture
- List of Taiwanese inventions and discoveries
- Taiwanese tea culture
- Milk Tea Alliance
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