Bubble tea is a Taiwanese tea-based drink invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s. Recipes contain tea of some kind, flavors of milk, and sugar (optional). Toppings, known as “pearls”, such as chewy tapioca balls (also known as pearls or boba), popping boba, fruit jelly, grass jelly, agar jelly, alovera jelly,sago and puddings are often added. Ice-blended versions are frozen and put into a blender, resulting in a slushy consistency. There are many varieties of the drink with a wide range of flavors. The two most popular varieties are black pearl milk tea and green pearl milk tea.
Bubble teas fall under two categories: teas (without milk) and milk teas. Both varieties come with a choice of black, green, or oolong tea, and come in many flavors (both fruit and non-fruit). Milk teas include either condensed milk, powdered milk, almond milk, coconut milk, 2% milk, skim milk, or fresh milk. Some shops offer non-dairy creamer options as well (many milk tea drinks in North America are made with non-dairy creamer). In addition, many boba shops sell Asian style smoothies, which include a dairy base and either fresh fruit or fruit-flavored powder, creating fruity flavors, such as honeydew, lemon, and many more (but no tea). Now, there are hot versions available at most shops as well.
The oldest known bubble tea consisted of a mixture of hot Taiwanese black tea, small tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and syrup or honey. Many variations followed; the most common are served cold rather than hot. The most prevalent varieties of tea have changed frequently.
Bubble tea first became popular in Taiwan in the 1980s, but the original inventor is unknown. Larger tapioca pearls were adapted and quickly replaced the small pearls. Soon after, different flavors, especially fruit flavors, became popular. Flavors may be added in the form of powder, pulp, or syrup to oolong, black or green tea, which is then shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker. The tea mixture is then poured into a cup with the toppings in it.
Today, there are stores that specialize in bubble tea. Some cafés use plastic lids, but more authentic bubble tea shops serve drinks using a machine to seal the top of the cup with plastic cellophane. The latter method allows the tea to be shaken in the serving cup and makes it spill-free until one is ready to drink it. The cellophane is then pierced with an oversize straw large enough to allow the toppings to pass through. Today, in Taiwan, it is most common for people to refer to the drink as pearl milk tea.
There are two competing stories for the origin of bubble tea. The Hanlin Tea Room of Tainan, Taiwan, claims that it was invented in 1986 when teahouse owner Tu Tsong-he was inspired by white tapioca balls he saw in the Ya Mu Liao market. He then made tea using the tapioca balls, resulting in the so-called “pearl tea.” Shortly after, Hanlin changed the white tapioca balls to the black version, mixed with brown sugar or honey, that is seen today. At many locations, one can purchase both black tapioca balls and white tapioca balls.
The other claim is from the Chun Shui Tang tearoom in Taichung, Taiwan. Its founder, Liu Han-Chieh, observed how the Japanese served cold coffee (while on a visit in the 1980s) and applied this method to tea. The new style of serving tea propelled his business, and multiple chains were established. This expansion began the rapid expansion of bubble tea. The creator of bubble tea is Lin Hsiu Hui, the teahouse’s product development manager, who randomly poured her fen yuan into the iced tea drink during a boring meeting in 1988. The beverage was well received at the meeting, leading to its inclusion on the menu. It ultimately became the franchise’s top-selling product.
The drink became popular in most parts of East and Southeast Asia during the 1990s, especially Vietnam. In Malaysia, the number of brands selling the beverage has grown to over 50. The drink is well received by foreign consumers in North America, specifically around areas with high populations of Chinese and Taiwanese expatriates. Notably, in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, bubble tea is very popular and is consumed by many consumers from various backgrounds. Bubble tea has a very large presence in the Bay Area, which is populated by many of those from Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds. Jollibee, a Filipino fast food chain, once established in Daly City, California in 1998, introduced boba on a wider scale with their semi-discontinued “Pearl Coolers”, which included the tapioca in popular flavors such as ube and Buko Pandan (coconut). In contemporary times, bubble tea has achieved cultural significance outside of Taiwan in some areas for major East Asian diaspora populations.