The growth of bubble tea has skyrocketed so much in recent times that looking at it could make your head spin in disbelief. In Southeast Asia alone, boba tea orders recorded an unprecedented 3,000% increase in the year 2018.
Not to be left behind, bubble tea shops have sprouted like mushrooms after the rain on campuses and shopping malls all over the United Kingdom in 2022. Like the chewy tapioca balls at the bottom of the yummy health drink, these sought-after shops accentuate London’s metropolis with gusto.
Unsurprisingly, the entry of bubble tea into the global scene has spun a thousand myths and legends from all walks of life. It’s understandable. With the stirred drink’s stunning success, it’s easy for people to attribute things to be magical and out of the ordinary.
Ultimately, however, reason will find its way into the conversation. Still, we must tell you there are unconventional and seemingly out-of-the-box ways boba rose to global prominence. Indeed, knowing these may make your jaw drop. But it should do you a favor.
So next time you take a sip of that tapioca-laden milk tea, you’ll enjoy the experience like never before. Read on.
Bubble Tea: From Taiwan to the World
Certainly, a quick look at the spurts of growth that bubble tea has achieved over the years is mind-blowing. For a drink that has reportedly been discovered by accident, it’s hard to imagine how global it has become. One thing’s for sure, the nootropic drink traces its roots in the island of Taiwan.
From Humble Beginnings
In 1949, a tea shop owner in Taiwan named Chang Fan Sou sold shou yao (hand-shaken) tea. Made via cocktail shakers, the resulting drink was initially called foam tea as the silky iced tea manifested fine air bubbles on top. It wasn’t exactly the bubble tea we know now, but the revolutionary drink was the start of Taiwan’s long love affair with cold tea drinks at a time when hot brewed teas and coffee were the norms.
Then in 1986, pearl green tea or zhen zhu lu cha rose to prominence in the island nation. It all started with Tu Tsong He, a broke businessman whose hot pot restaurant went bust. Down on luck but wanting to get back on his feet, Tu decided to mix white fen yuan (tapioca balls) into his green tea. As the resulting drink looked like his mother’s pearl necklace, Tu named it to pearl green tea.
Improvising some more, Tu used bigger black tapioca balls and added them to milk tea. And by his account, that was how the world saw its first classic bubble tea. Then again, Tu Tsong isn’t the only one who claimed to have invented bubble tea.
Another avid tea aficionado, a lady executive, laid claim to inventing the bubbly drink.
In 1988, Lin Hsiu Hui, a product manager at one of Taiwan’s tea chains, claimed she was the first to concoct the drink. She accounts she poured tapioca balls into an iced Assam tea out of fun during a staff meeting. In no time, the drink won the hearts of everyone in the room — an overflowing appreciation that would soon spread to the whole island. And eventually, the whole planet.
Rise to Global Dominance
Today, bubble tea has become a household name in just about every country in the world except Antarctica. And rightly so. Drinking one is an unforgettable treat that comes with all the health benefits boba has to offer.
The sweet concoction arrived in America in the ‘90s mainly because of Asian American migration. Eventually, the adoption came to a head in the 2000s. Everything just fell into place. With the arrival of social media as exemplified by the Fung Brother’s 2013 “Bobalife” YouTube video, an army of young Asians led by Taiwanese-Americans made boba shops a fave hangout.
In essence, it became a lifestyle — the boba life as they call it. Now, drinking boba is more than just a trend; it’s a way of life for its skyrocketing fanbase.
America loved boba so much that when recent pandemic-related supply chain woes resulted in tapioca shortfall in the US, it stoked fears of a broader bubble tea shortage in 2021.
Officially, boba arrived in Great Britain a little later in the 2000s. The British nation was rather late in acquiring the boba habit. But when it did, the great nation never looked back with the drink becoming ubiquitous on High Streets.
- Global bubble tea market expected growth at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 8.09%: US$ 1.89 billion in 2018 to US$ 3.49 billion by the end of 2026
Figure 1: Bubble Tea Expected Growth 2018 to 2026
Source: Fortune Business Insights
Further, here’s a quick look at bubble tea global market share by region:
Figure 2: Bubble Tea by Market Share
Other Key Findings:
- North American bubble tea market is expected to grow aggressively from $1,429.3 million in 2020 to $2,432.3 million by 2027.
- Bubble tea is a big hit in China with over RMB 140.5 billionin annual sales since 2019.
- In Southeast Asia, Thailand exemplifies the bubble tea craze more than its neighbours by consuming as many as 6 cups per person per monthon average.
While it’s clear that there is still a lot of room to grow, bubble tea has spread to all corners of the world. That means the major markets: Asia Pacific (APAC), North America (NA), Latin America, Middle East and Africa (LAMEA) and Europe.
5 Unconventional Ways Boba Won the Planet’s Heart
The stage was set. Even before the advent of bubble tea, tea was already an established drink. And not just commonplace. By far, it’s the most consumed drink on the planet, next only to water. Indeed, coffee sits only second.
And yet, bubble tea’s rise has been buoyed by a lot of factors — many of them surprisingly fantastic. Below are 5 of these unconventional ways boba rose to the top.
1. Boba: A name like no other.
Part of the allure offered by bubble tea is its set of unique catchy names. Truth be told, this has surrounded the drink with an aura of mystery. Top of the list, of course, is boba.
And yet, even the name bubble tea itself piques a lot of curiosity. Some may think that it refers to the bubble-like tapioca balls that reside in all their splendour at the bottom of the drink. But, no. A more logical explanation is the foamy bubbles that form at the top of the drink after it is vigorously stirred — by hand or by machine. Hence, the name.
It’s also been called pearl milk tea. As explained initially above, the pearls refer to the tapioca balls that reminded the Taiwanese originator Tu Tsong He of his mother’s pearl necklace. Then again, tapioca milk tea provides a more descriptive version.
Last but not least, people call it boba.
To boot, boba is a Chinese slang term for “large breasts”. It refers to the spherical shape of the tapioca balls, a gluten-free starch extracted from cassava roots. In essence, tapioca is much like sago, the edible starch from tropical palm trees that have graced an innumerable number of snacks. To note, tapioca just like sago comes in various shapes and sizes depending on the processing.
There’s another twist to it though. The term “boba” is also in reference to the nickname of actress Amy Yip, a leading sex symbol of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s who was famous for her busty assets. It’s no accident the rise of boba tea came at the height of Amy Yip’s widespread fame in Asia.
But don’t be fooled. There’s more. In other regions, bubble tea comes in a host of odd-sounding names. Here’s a short list.
Q or QQ
Refers to the largely untranslatable bouncy, rubbery, and chewy consistency of the drink.
Translates to pearl milk tea
Juice (ジュース) in Japanese means sweet beverage
Younger Japanese referring to drinking the tapioca beverage
Cha means tea and yen means ‘cold’.
Following the UK, Canada, Australia, and South Africa call is bubble tea and not boba.
Table 1: How Countries Call Bubble Tea
NOTE: In America, the East Coast (notably in California where the drink first spread) calls the drink boba while the West Coast (New York) calls it exclusively bubble tea.
2. Insta-friendly: Social media was central in boba’s rise.
There are a number of market movements that have sped up the adoption of boba. A key experience that influenced the fast absorption into people’s lifestyles is the café culture in Asia. When Starbucks aggressively expanded, young Asians had their taste of a new experience, a new place to hang out and study and do just about anything to pass the time.
The same held true in the Western market. Most of the early adopters of bubble tea were young people who poured hours in the boba shops like it was their second home. The casual and largely comfortable ambiance provided the perfect go-to place to meet up and while the time.
And tinker with social media.
Indeed, it’s no surprise posting the latest bubble tea experience has become a social media trend. Top of the list of social media platforms where the frothy drink has become a sensation is Instagram and Facebook, breeding a whole array of boba hashtags such as #bubbletea. A quick search on google should be telling.
Social media became a rallying platform to express one’s boba journey boosting sales further in the process. Additionally, a host of social media stars contributed to the fabulous drink’s viral rise. Some of these are:
- Jay Chou: No one may have promoted the boba habit than the King of Mandopop himself. The best-selling Chinese singer who has sold over 30 million albums has been public about his bubble tea consumption, prompting some to castigate him on social media to stop the habit and lose weight.
- Fung Brothers: Two now-famous Asian American brothers, Andrew and David Fung, expressed their cool bubble tea addiction in LA in their much-ballyhooed YouTube video Bobalife which became a lifestyle anthem for bubble tea fans all over America.
With the advent of digital technology, even robots have become the voice of the bubble tea generation. Ling, an AI with over 100,000 followers on social media, has been used to promote China’s biggest bubble tea brands. With great success.
3. Young Factor: Rise of the Gen Z market.
Another huge factor in the adoption of bubble tea is the rising young market that was born with technology in hand. While millennials, born between 1991 and 1996, witnessed social media evolve Generation Z, born from 1996 to 2012, experienced the world with it right from Day 1. So their ability to make the most of technology has become central in their everyday living.
To date, Gen Z or known as Zoomers has become the dominant force in the market today. In the US, Gen Z has eclipsed Millenials in numbers. The same holds true for the UK. To date, Gen Z has been fueling online demand in the UK during the pandemic.
And the most surprising part? Research has shown that 43% of online shoppers use social media in buying. A whopping 92% of which surveyed products via Instagram among other social media online platforms. This means social media holds a big sway in the decision-making process of these market leaders.
Here’s a quick look at the biggest bubble tea drinkers in the world in terms of age:
Figure 3: Age of Bubble Tea Drinkers (China)
The above data speaks of China which has house 480,000 bubble tea shops all over the country. Overall, there are 250 million Gen Z bubble tea drinkers.
Although the data is Asian, this also reflects the kind of consumers that the Western market is having. Most of the British bubble tea drinkers are women from 19 to 30 years of age.
NOTE: Another survey in the UK stated that more women drink more bubble tea compared to their men counterparts. As a whole, 35% of women drink tea compared to 25% of men. Here’s the study in detail.
4. A most customisable drink.
One of the key things that have made bubble tea so adorable is there are just so many possibilities you can do with the drink. It certainly can make you dizzy. With more than 200 flavour combinations, there are tens of thousands of drink customisation that one can do.
That’s because you can have a number of tea bases (e.g., black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong) that you can use, with some even foregoing the tea altogether. Plus, you can choose a host of dairy and non-dairy alternatives for milk. To add to all that, there are dozens of flavour that you can choose from, from mango to honeydew to peach.
Imagine how wide an audience such a most customisable product can attract. It’s just mind-boggling, not to mention a great attraction for social media posts. Such a wide-ranging availability of bubble tea options has become a potent marketing strategy that has added to its global appeal, the study showed.
However, take note that the demand for fruit flavorings tops the market’s mind. Here’s a quick look:
Figure 4: Global Bubble Tea Market by Flavours
Indeed, this shows that staying true to nature is best for you if you want to satisfy somebody’s bubble tea craving. Or for that matter, your own.
5. It’s all about staying healthy.
Perhaps, the biggest factor that has pushed people to stick to bubble tea is health. As the pandemic plowed through the planet and wreaked havoc, people have become more conscious about staying healthy.
Thus, the comfort that the usual soda brings has given way to better options. That bubble tea is based on green tea and other true teas imbue the drink all the health benefits associated with these concoctions from the Camella Sinensis plant. From fighting heart disease to cancer.
The customisable nature of bubble tea means people can choose the kind of ingredients they put on the drink. Instead of the traditional sugar which is a fixture in most soda drinks, they can choose sugar alternatives such as honey, agave, and stevia. And add other healthy ingredients.
In short, it gives them a better shot at health. By a long shot.
NOTE: Too much sugar is unhealthy. So, the best way to drink bubble tea is to limit your sugar. Also, this means too many bubble teas in one day can be risky. As this 14-year-old Chinese bubble tea aficionado found out too late.
To Wrap Things Up
When you get into the boba lifestyle, you indulge in a habit that not only can make you healthy but also get you that instant jolt of energy to reenergise your day. In short, it’s one health drink that comes as delicious as can be. A win-win by any measure. It’s boba for life which simply means how you get your best shot in life with a cuppa bubble tea in hand.