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The Story of Bubble Tea

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Most of the tea variations and preparation methods that we come across are steeped in centuries of history and tradition, but there is an increasingly popular tea-based beverage whose origins can be traced to only a few decades ago in Taiwan: Bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea or boba tea.

So what is Bubble tea exactly? There are a myriad of possible variations, but very simply put, bubble tea most often refers to a preparation of either black, green or oolong tea to which tapioca balls, “boba” or “pearls”, are added. The drink can be served both with and without the addition of milk. And while the tapioca balls were originally created from the cassava shrub, more recently other ingredients have been used to create the chewy, round textures, like coconut jelly, lychee, mango, coffee and many more. Ice and some form of sugar additive are also often included.            

Ever since the Dutch colonization of Taiwan in the 17th century, milk and sugar have been popular additives to tea within the region. However, there are competing stories about how bubble tea originated. The first is that product-developer Lin Hsiu Hu created the first cup of bubble tea in 1988 during a staff meeting of the Chun Shui Tang tea room. The drink was received well and subsequently added to the menu. The other claim is that Tu Tsong-he, a teahouse owner, was inspired to add tapioca balls to the tea after finding them in a local market. He opened his first bubble tea shop in 1986.

Either way, bubble tea quickly became one of the bestselling beverages in Taiwan, even to the degree that it has become synonymous with Taiwanese culture. The market for bubble tea was estimated at over 2.4 billion in 2019, and in 2020 the date of April the 30th was declared as National Bubble Tea Day in the country. Bubble tea also holds a more symbolic meaning in Taiwan, representing the ushering in of a new era of the country, going from the old to the new, into modernity.  

As for the rest of the world, the popularity of bubble tea started expanding rapidly in the ’90s, first throughout Asia, but also quickly in the US, particularly California, due to the influx of Taiwanese immigrants. Bubble tea has grown to become a true fan favorite, and its meteoric rise in popularity can be likened to that of Japanese sushi, with new stores and hotspots specializing in bubble tea opening up all around the world. So if you haven’t already, and always wondered what those dark little balls were in this tea-beverage, don’t hesitate to give it a try.

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