Bubble Tea: A Cool Way to Chill Out

Amy Sherman
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Boba Milk Tea With Puff Cream from Happy Lemon

It’s hard to imagine a beverage that’s more fun to drink that bubble tea. It’s customizable, cool and quenching, and sippers can choose their preferred flavors, sweetness level, and any number of add-ins and toppings.


Named for the foamy bubbles that form thanks to the vigorously shaken tea and ice, bubble tea—tea served cold with oversized straws that accommodate chewy, sweet black tapioca balls at the bottom of the drink—was invented and first became popular in Taiwan, where summers are long, humid and hot. There’s some controversy over who created the refreshing beverage, with two different Taiwanese companies taking credit: The Hanlin Tea Room claims to have invented it in 1986,  while Chun Shui Tang also claims to have started serving Chinese tea cold after taking note of iced coffee in Japan in 1983. 


The original bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea, is a style that is related to other iced drinks served in Asia, including Hong Kong milk tea, which originated during the British colonial era and often uses black tea as well as evaporated or condensed milk. Served both hot and cold, another version of milk tea popular in Taiwan used powdered creamer or powdered milk to lend creaminess. The term “boba”—slang for a woman’s bosom, in reference to the round shape of the tapioca balls that add texture to bubble tea— caught on later. Today the terms bubble tea, boba tea, and pearl milk tea are interchangeable and refer to a whole category of Asian iced teas, with or without milk, and often with tapioca balls or other add-ins like grass jelly, aloe jelly, almond jelly, egg pudding, tofu pudding, and red beans, all of which are also found in cold Asian desserts. 


Matcha Smoothie from Gong Cha.


Since the 1980s bubble tea has grown in popularity, expanding from Asia to the U.S., where it initially took off in the 1990s in the Asian American enclave of San Gabriel Valley in California. It now comes in hundreds of flavors with most menus including dairy and non-dairy flavors, black and green tea flavors, fruit flavors, sesame, nut and soy milk flavors, herbal flavors, and even coffee versions. If there’s a tea flavor or even a creamy drink, there’s a bubble tea version. There are horchata, chai, matcha, and Thai iced tea boba drinks. On boba shop menus you’ll also sometimes find other cold slushy drinks, layered drinks, and newer creations such as cheese tea. 


Another recent Taiwanese tea export is cheese tea which is a cold sweetened tea topped with a foamy layer of whipped cream cheese with salt. From the night markets of Taiwan, the drink has expanded to other parts of Asia as well, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, according to Eater


Jasmine Sea Salt Crema from Mr. Green Bubble.


Today, newer generation boba shops like Labobatory and Boba Guys are elevating bubble tea with the use of higher quality ingredients. They make their from scratch without powders and mixes, artificial colors or flavors, and crafting new styles of boba. Labobatory is known for creating wildly innovative flavors such as Better Beer, a nonalcoholic butterscotch fizz inspired by Harry Potter, and Boba Guys for what they call all-American flavors such as Strawberry Matcha Latte and the coffee-laced Dirty Horchata. 


What’s next? Bubble tea menus continue to expand with more flavors of cheese topped drinks, slushy drinks, blue-hued butterfly pea tea, fruity yogurt drinks, and sweet-savory smoothies made with avocados and taro. The item is getting its own emoji this year, and Dunkin’ recently announced it’s testing bubble tea at select locations starting this summer. According to a study by Allied Market Research the global bubble tea market is expected to grow to $4.3 billion by 2027. 


Discover your favorite boba flavor at one of these Bay Area bubble tea shops.


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Happy Lemon

Newark

Here you can get milk tea with boba and salted cheese or tiramisu salted cheese.

Quickly 

Fruitvale Station, Oakland

This Taiwanese chain offers 34 flavors of milk tea, snow, flavor tea, slush, or juice, plus eight classic milk teas and five-layered fruit “delight” drinks.

Mr. Green Bubble

Union City

Boba tea ,tropical avocado or mango fruit smoothies, and slushy and fizzy drinks.

Bobaville

Daly City

Here you can get a tea free milk boba drink with handmade boba and caramelized black sugar syrup.

Gong Cha

Downtown North, Palo Alto

Offers Panda Tea made with black and white pearls; additions include rainbow or coconut jelly.

Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks

Central Business District, San Mateo

Special drinks include Smoked Plum, Lemon Aiyu Jelly, and Winter Melon Tea. 

Ume Tea

Cupertino

Toppings here include brown sugar cheese and Oreo cheese; popular teas include Grape Green Tea with Cheese Top and Aloe and White Peach Oolong Milk Tea.

Boba Guys

Hayes Valley, San Francisco

Try the chain’s signature Strawberry Matcha Latte made with oat milk or its Korean Banana Milk

Milk Tea Lab

Cambrian Park, San Jose

Add-ins to tea include mango popping boba, tofu pudding and Oreo chunks.

T4 Tea for U

East San Jose

Signature Snow Globe & Pearl Milk Tea comes with both honey boba and angel boba. 

Feng Cha Teahouse

Telegraph, Berkeley

Try a dirty boba with milk, brown sugar boba, and crème brûlée cheese foam.

Teaspoon

Willow Glen, Campbell

Popping boba varieties include yogurt, lychee, passion fruit, peach, and strawberry.

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