No other caffeine fix is quite as aesthetically satiating as bubble tea, the Taiwanese sweet-milk-and-tea-based drink. But where did it come from and how did it get so popular?
Served in a plastic cup over ice with a straw big enough to suck up the black tapioca balls jostling around the bottom, bubble tea is part dessert, part iced caffeinated tonic—a stunner of a to-go beverage that has the photogenic alchemy of a cronut. (It’s not surprising it’s a dessert star on Instagram with #boba and #bubbletea racking up over a million posts each). Which is exactly why the sweetened tea has gone beyond the niche drink category. According to a report published by Allied Market Research, the global market for bubble tea was valued at nearly $2 billion in 2016, and is projected to grow by at least another billion by 2023.
Who invented bubble tea?
The exact origin of bubble tea is still a gray area, but Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taichung, a city in Taiwan, is generally accepted as its birthplace. In the 1980s, the teahouse was an early purveyor of iced milk tea, which the owner added to the menu after trying iced coffee in Japan. Shortly after, as the story goes, a young teahouse employee named Lin Hsui Hui mixed the tapioca balls from a popular Taiwanese pudding dessert called fen yuan, into her glass of iced milk tea.
Because the drink was never patented, Lin Hsui Hui’s story might just be a bit of clever marketing. However, food historians and bubble tea makers all agree that bubble tea first cropped up in the late 1980s among Taiwan’s thriving cosmopolitan street food culture. Night market-style cuisine also caters to sweet tooths—think desserts made out of flavored jellies, shaved ice, and blended fruits. Taiwanese drink stands offer bubble tea alongside slushies, cream floats, and flavored teas far sweeter than those found at traditional teahouses.
Buddha Bubbles Coconut Boba/Bubble Tea Powder, $13.95 on Amazon
Make sweet, refreshing bubble tea at home.
WuFuYuan Black Tapioca Pearls, $5.34
And don't forget to put the bubbles in your bubble tea.
How did the boba bubble expand from there?
During the 1990s, bubble tea spread throughout East Asia, eventually following Taiwanese migrants around the world. At first, bubble tea could only be found in the drink section of menus at Taiwanese restaurants, but by the late 1990s, the first dedicated bubble tea shops had opened in Los Angeles, eventually spreading to East and Southeast Asian immigrant enclaves on the West Coast (where it is almost exclusively known by the colloquial name “boba”) and in New York City. Bubble tea became an integral part of Asian-American culture—in LA Weekly, writer Clarissa Wei recalls drinking bubble tea as a kid in the San Gabriel Valley with her friends, whom she deems “the boba generation.”
Today specialty shops have opened all over the country, including the wildly popular chain Boba Guys, co-owned by first-generation Asian-American entrepreneur Andrew Chau. The Boba Guys menu speaks volumes of bubble tea’s evolution over the years, seizing on customers love of everything small-batch and artisanal. The health-conscious flock to their airy, all-white-and-warm-wood shops because they use real fruit, opt for high-quality milks instead of non-dairy creamers and powders, and make their own grass jelly, brown sugar and almond jelly in-house.
What’s the next step for bubble tea?
But bubble tea pivoting isn’t just about remaking it for the oat-milk only set. Some versions are playing up the sweetness factor like the Salted Caramel Cookie Dough Black Milk Tea at Tpumps in San Mateo, California. Meanwhile the Lychee Gin Tea (yes, a boozy bubble tea!) at The Local Box in Singapore is more of a cocktail reinterpretation. Cheese tea, bubble tea topped with a foamy cream cheese and condensed milk blend, is the most recent Instagrammable trend to hit the States (after blowing up at China’s Heytea, where waiting in line to order the drink topped off at seven hours). Not surprisingly this new budding trend in bubble tea was first introduced at street stalls in Taiwan where it all began.
Header image courtesy of Geri Lavrov / Moment Open / Getty Images