Boba comes to the USA
The first time I encountered Bubble Tea/Boba Tea was in a small shop in Houston, Texas in the late ’90s. Driving past a small strip mall, there was a sign that just said, “Tea Shop”. This was in one of the Asian communities and I was excited to stop and check it out. I ordered their bestseller but it was not at all what I expected. I tried the drink and managed to pull some of the black tapioca pearls up through the fat straw. But didn’t understand it. The idea that I would drink the super-sweetned condensed milk and then chew and swallow the black globs seemed almost other-worldly. The thought that it would ever catch on seemed remote. Now it is so popular that supplies of the ingredients have become difficult to find. Some shops are struggling to keep supplies. It’s so popular that it has it’s own Bubble Tea Wikipedia pages.
And, over the years, writers here at T Ching have contributed several articles. (see below)
What I couldn’t imagine at that time and still don’t completely understand today, is how popular the Boba/Bubble Tea phenom has become.
“Bubble tea shops have become the new Starbucks,” . . . “It has become a part of a social lifestyle for many. It helps bring customers together, from studying together to even bringing their first dates.” Today.com
But the more serious tea lovers have not embraced it and I don’t see many retailers who sell loose-leaf tea or serve afternoon tea, offer Boba on their menu. There are several reasons for this beyond basic tea-snobbery. Primarily, it isn’t as easy to make and serve commercially as many of us have assumed.
Additionally, there is no way to consider this a health drink. The boba pearls are essentially carbohydrates. No vitamins or minerals. They are filling! So it is the tea or juice mix that contributes some health benefits but this is often offset by the amount of sugar. My best description of a good quality boba drink is that it is a tea milkshake with an “activity”. Pulling pearls up the straw isn’t easy for everyone. It’s easier to understand it as a dessert or sometimes a designer cocktail. And in that sense, they are in great demand.
Making Boba for a crowd
I recently had an opportunity to do a deep dive into boba tea. I offered to set up a Boba Tea booth for a local fundraising event. When I made the offer, I was seriously uninformed. In my mind it was just boiling some tapioca “pearls”, brewing some tea and adding flavored milk. Wrong! There’s a lot more to making a good quality glass of Boba Tea than most of us realize. Additionally, the creativity in
Boba for family and friends vs. Boba for a crowd
After hours of calculating how the quantities and logistics needed to upscale my recipes to serve 100, I found this video. It explained so much. Her formulas were slightly different but the boba came out much better. But she also explains the various issues. It was from this video that I learned the importance of cleaning the boba both before and after cooking. That’s when I finally came out with glistening and properly chewey tapioca pearls.
Dealing with the dry Boba pearls
In the video Kristin talks about selecting a high quality grade of boba pearls. I checked with local shops and everyone seemed to agree on buying from Tea Zone. When you open the vacuum sealed bag, the good pearls will be mixed in with debris. (middle bowl in image) Then you can use a large-holed sieve and shake lightly over a bowl. My favorite sieve is the turquoise one on the left that still holds the clean pearls. The debris that came from this quantity is in the white bowl on the right. Throw the debris away. As far as I know, there is no good use for it. (But I suspect that it could be used a paste.)
Dealing with cooked Boba
It’s commonly accepted that the cooked pearls don’t last more than four hours before losing quality – especially texture. And boba aficionados are very pickey about the teture of their boba. In Kristen’s YouTube video, she advises keeping the boba suspended in warm syrup. She goes through them quickly enough in her shop that the technique seems reasonable. But a favorite sandwich shop that also serves boba drinks prepares the large batch before opening, chills the cooked boba and then warms the individual serving in the microwave to serve. And this seems to work well.
My Boba Menu
For the event, I offered three flavor options. One was Chocolate Chai with a whole milk base. The most popular was Jasmine Matcha made with brewed tea from Jasmine Pearls and a good quality Korean Matcha blended with almond milk. The third contained no milk or caffeine. I brewed hibiscus tea with cinnamon and apple juice. It was a successful range, with something for everyone. And I offered plain milk with the boba as a side, off-menu option.
I’m still a tea lover . . . without all the frills and calories. If I wanted to add a few hundred calories to my teatime, I’d prefer lemon curd atop a warm scone. I’m also a bit frustrated that my personal preferences for artisan teas aren’t as popular as the drink with tapioca. That being said, the Bubble/Boba tea rage is here to stay. And what it really has on it’s side is the potential for flashy creativity. It’s a social activity. As Today.com reported, it’s a date night. But I still believe that a fine oolong in gongfu style is not only more elegant but more romantic.
Pros and cons of bubble tea
- Socially Popular
- Oddly and Eccentrically Fun
- Carbs and Calories
- Possible Indigestion
More About Boba on T Ching
Bubble Tea is definitely in the dessert category! I got hooked on it more than 10 years ago. There was a Real Tea shop in our local mall, and the owner made her own blends and pearls. It was awesome, but she closed about 5 years ago about the time I was getting serious about tea. She buys tea from me now.
I tried a Bubble Tea recently from a coffee shop that sells cheap loose leaf tea. They used milk and powder with the popping pearls, and it was WAY TOO SWEET for me. I could not finish it. I need to introduce her to tea worth drinking.
Molly, I actually tried to add the honey-sweetened boba pearls to regular tea. It’s an interesting way to “sweeten” tea and it makes an interesting snack. So my tea-loving friends are grossed out but my non-tea friends think it’s fun.