Ordering a bubble tea is not exactly straightforward. First, there is the choice of tea base, then whether to have it milky or fruity, and the amount of sugar or ice to add, but most important of all is the kind of boba – the signature chewy tapioca pearls that make the drink utterly unique.
None of that has prevented the tea’s meteoric rise in popularity.
Somewhere between a dessert and a drink, bubble tea is an industry that was worth $2.4bn in 2017,
and is forecast to reach $4.3bn by 2027, according to one market research firm.
In three decades, bubble tea shops have appeared from Taipei to New York, and from Singapore to London, and the drink has become shorthand for the self-ruled island of Taiwan. Foreign Minister Joseph Wu shared a bubble tea with the Japanese representative Hiroyasu Izumi. President Tsai Ing-wen served the drink during national day, and this year bubble tea was at the centre of a Twitter spat with Chinese internet users when Taiwanese joined an online “milk tea alliance” with the drink’s fans from Hong Kong and Thailand.
Bubble tea found popularity initially because boba tea shops not only offered a place to hang out at night and play cards, but something different from Taiwan’s existing tea culture, said Po-Yi Hung, an associate professor in the Department of Geography at National Taiwan University.
“The story of bubble tea is related to the social change in Taiwan. For oolong tea, you need time to brew the tea, you need more time to enjoy the tea. But the whole industrialisation and economic development in Taiwan pushed us to live a life where you have to save time – you don’t have that much time to brew tea and enjoy the so-called ‘laoren cha’, oolong tea culture,” he said.
It was Taiwan’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, one of the so-called “Asian tigers”, that not only nurtured bubble tea’s fan base at home, but helped it spread beyond the island.
Taiwanese businesses started investing in China in the 1990s, as the mainland began to open its economy. Bubble tea quickly spread across the Taiwan Strait along with the new factories and foreign investment.
“Outside of Taiwan, China was one of the first places for consumers to know bubble tea and to consume bubble tea,” Hung said of the 1990s. “At that time, Chinese people were curious about Taiwan and wanted to know Taiwan. Because of the political tension between Taiwan and China, sometimes we don’t really have open connections to know each other, so we have curiosity.”
Boba tea quickly caught on and mainland entrepreneurs began to launch their own domestic chains, while people in other parts of Asia – including Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore – also developed a taste for the tea.
It spread, as well, to the West, first through Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants and university students looking for the taste of home, before gradually entering the mainstream in the 2000s.