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What is Bubble Tea?

A glass of bubble milk tea on a white table


Certainly, bubble tea has come of age. Who would think that a
spur-of-the-moment action of pouring fen yuan (a sweetened tapioca dessert) into a cup of iced black Assam tea by one Taiwanese manager in the 80’s out of boredom would spark a global phenomenon these days? And the world is definitely better for it.

For starters, bubble tea or more commonly called “boba tea” is a most enticing drink. The tea topped with chewy tapioca balls is bound to satisfy each and every palate with its innumerable variety of flavors and toppings. You can take this Pearl Milk Tea hot — though its best form is one with served cold. You can also have this magical tea drink mixed with your fave fruit juice. Indeed, you open up a whole new world of wondrous options when you decide to take a sip with boba.

This hearty tea will definitely not disappoint. Bubble tea is tea in its most pleasing form — thanks largely to its entirely customizable nature. Small wonder the fad that started in Taiwan has become an unstoppable trend today. It’s taking the biggest cities of the world by storm.

Secondly, and most importantly, boba has given humanity a welcome way to stay healthy. The nootropic drink filled with chewy tapioca and shaken like a martini is a great alternative over carbonated drinks. Plus, it’s a 100% gluten-free drink. That should get you closer to the best version of yourself. Read on.

But credit the discovery to Lin Hsiu Hui, Liu Han Chieh’s product development manager. In one staff meeting in 1988, Lin brought fen yuan, a traditional sweet Taiwanese dessert laden with tapioca. As the meeting wore her down, she nonchalantly tipped her dessert into a cup of iced Assam black tea she was drinking. The resulting taste so overwhelmed her that she decided to pass the just-found concoction to everyone’s delight.

And in that instant, bubble tea was born. Its creation was by accident but its conquest of the world clearly is not.

● Since the invention of bubble tea in 1988, approximately 380 bubble tea shops have opened worldwide yearly.

Today, bubble tea is a world phenomenon. It’s tea at its trendiest. Its appeal is all-encompassing. It appeals to tea traditionalists as it is still tea at its core. The drink could be served using green, black, or even white tea. But also its taste and its largely customizable form appeal to millennials and all the new generation who wants to be as trendy as can be.

● In Taiwan alone, especially in Taipei, there are over 6,500 stores serving boba tea.
● Worldwide, there are over 4,070 tea shops all over the world — and growing.
● In 2012, McDonald’s Germany added bubble tea to its menu.
● In 2018 alone, bubble tea orders rose by as high as 3000% all over Southeast Asia.

Finding a treasure trove, Taiwanese entrepreneurs didn’t waste time exporting the gluten-free drink to America and to the world. Already, the drink has become a pop phenomenon especially with Asian Americans who refer to their lifestyle as the “boba life” or “boba culture”.

Today, the U.S., Germany, and Canada have strong bubble tea markets while India, Brazil, and China are catching up. What used to be an accidental find is expected to be a $4.3 billion industry by the year 2027.

Indeed, bubble tea, Taiwan’s fad not-too-long-ago is now officially a global trend. And it shows no stopping.

The Two Categories

Strictly speaking, there are two types of bubble teas: milk teas and teas without milk. For both varieties, you can use any major tea type: black, green, white, and oolong. As for milk teas, just about every milk has been used. This includes coconut milk, condensed milk, powdered milk, skim milk, or fresh milk.

A traditional form of bubble tea was hot. It involved Taiwanese black tea with tapioca pearls mixed with condensed milk and honey or syrup. Today, the majority of bubble tea is served cold.

Tapioca pearls are made from the starch of the cassava plant. The plant is not originally from Taiwan but was introduced from South America during Japanese rule.

Even how bubble tea is served has become varied over the years. Many tea shops use plastic lids. However, a few authentic tea shops use a machine to seal the cup’s top using heated plastic cellophane. Doing so means you can shake the serving cup as much as you want. You can then proceed to pierce the cellophane with an oversized straw (boba straw), just the right size to let the tapioca toppings pass through.

The Pearls

Tapioca may be the most essential ingredient other than the tea itself. But there are a host of ways to come up with the chewy spheres in boba tea. Usually, these pearls vary in color depending on the mixed ingredients. However, for the most part, they are black due to brown sugar.

Instead of milk usually used in the milk tea, traders used non-dairy creamer resulting in a stunningly sweet yet creamy taste.

Over time, a slew of other ingredients has followed suit to make bubble tea a most customizable beverage. Some of these are:

● Jelly of all sizes and shapes
● Azuki bean
● Mung bean
● Sago
● Egg pudding
● Flavors: lychee, konjac, coconut jelly, honey lemon

Sometimes shops offer cheese or milk foam to give the boba tea a whipped-cream consistency. To give wider options, shops allow customers to choose the amount of sugar, usually done in percentages (e.g., 100%, 75%). The same holds true for the ice level. Some shops allow customers to order their preferred amount of ice (e.g., normal ice, less ice, no ice0.

Also, bubble tea has inspired other tea-flavored snacks (e.g., bubble tea candy, bubble tea ice cream).

Most Popular Bubble Tea Flavors

Chart 1 of Most Popular Bubble Tea Flavors
Chart 2 of Most Popular Bubble Tea Flavors

Right from the get-go, tapioca balls come from tapioca, a starch extract from cassava roots. Often, their diameter is 5 to 10 millimeters in boba tea, an improvement of the traditional 2.1 mm diameter tapioca balls used before. Typically, these balls, lacking flavor naturally, take on the flavor of bubble tea. Naturally, tapioca balls are naturally white but are colored to the desired color upon processing. Also, tapioca is a cheaper alternative to sago pearls, balls made from the starch from tropical palm stems.

The name Tapioca comes from the word tipi'óka, which means “coagulant” in the Tupi language spoken by natives in Brazil around 1500. Over the years, tapioca has been a staple food in many tropical countries. It is high in carbohydrates but low in vitamins and minerals or protein.

Cassava is a root vegetable and is much like potato and yam. Its roots are similar to that of sweet potatoes. The perennial plant is native to South American and grows in tropical and subtropical regions. It’s a sturdy plant that can grow in poor soil. It has been brought by the Japanese to Taiwan from South America.

As bubble tea is basically tea adorned with tapioca and usually with milk, the drink also maintains the many health benefits of tea. It follows that if you use green tea as your base, you’d be enjoying the health benefits of unoxidized tea. And that means tons of antioxidants and polyphenols doing your bidding — not to mention the catechin epigallocatechin-3-gallate or EGCG.

That should tell you, you have greater protection against free radical damage every time you take a sip from a cup of boba.

Also, you’d be getting plenty of theaflavin polyphenol if you incorporate a bag of black tea in your favourite bubble tea. This means you have a wonderful tool to reduce plaque formation in the blood vessels and lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

The same holds true if you use the freshness of white tea, the rarest (and most expensive) of all tea types. You treat your body to a number of antioxidants that could be more numerous than the ones found in green tea.

To give you an idea, here are 4 major health benefits of drinking boba:

Remember that these health benefits are just some of the great benefits of drinking tea. As time goes by, more and more studies have shown incorporating tea in your life is a monumental health decision. Indeed, there’s more to tea than meets the eye.

Of all tea types, bubble tea is the most versatile. As it can have all sorts of tea as its base, its taste is varied. So you’re looking at the world’s most customizable tea. You can use just about any tea on the planet to make bobarom traditional green tea to black tea to oolong and white tea. Added to this, the drink can use all sorts of fruits and flavors: mango, kiwi, strawberry, and even chocolate just to name a few.

Add to the mix the milk (which is also varied) and the sugar, and chances are you have a tea that’s as delicious as can be. People may not even suspect the drink is essentially tea.

And that’s the beauty of it all. You can avail yourself of all the health benefits tea can offer while at the same time give your palate a treat. In short, it’s tea in its most delicious form. Indeed, these pearls are Taiwan’s best export to the world: bubble tea.


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