What is boba tea?

In brief, a drink that includes tapioca or fruit-flavored pearls.

But, that just scratches the surface. When someone says ‘Boba tea’, they are referencing a traditionally cold-served beverage that has a tea base, a milk or fruit flavor, and edible pearls (the ‘boba’ in boba tea) inside a cup.

Boba tea has many aliases which tends to confuse the heck out of people. You may have heard one or many of these phrases used, but you should know they all mean the same thing: bubble tea, pearl tea, bubble milk tea, boba, boba fruit tea or tapioca tea.

Boba Tea has become increasingly popular over the past few years. This is in large part due to the new and unique consumption experience of having tasty edible pearls in a beverage!

Tapioca Boba

Traditional milk boba tea is served with tapioca balls, which are made of starch and are commonly referred to as ‘pearls’.

The drink is usually a combination of milk, water, tea and sugar, yet has a lot of variations. Boba tea is available in both hot and cold versions. It is typically served in a wide mouth plastic cup and sealed shut with a clear plastic wrap. (See picture above for reference)

Traditional boba pearls are found at the bottom of a cup, and are very chewy.

Their consistency is similar to a mix of chewing gum and jell-o (don’t worry, no gelatin included), and can be enjoyed at all times of the day. Most tapioca pearls are black, but there are also versions that are white and some transparent.

Popping Boba

Fruit-based boba can be paired with a variety of toppings but most commonly is ordered with popping boba.

Popping boba are edible, oftentimes fruit-filled spheres that have a gel-like skin. Hence the name, popping boba bursts with flavor when squeezed. Popping boba is traditionally made of seaweed extract, calcium compounds, fruit juice, water and a sweetener.

Jelly Topping

The other common toppings of choice are jellies. Jellies are chewy, jell-o-like, rectangular fruit-flavored bits that are actually not made with gelatin. These toppings are made from either Konjar (a veggie by-product), or coconut meat. Beyond their fun taste, Jellies are popular because they have zero cholesterol yet high fiber content. 

Popping Boba varieties

Additional boba tea toppings (Tapioca, Jellies)

Who invented boba tea?

In brief, two separate teahouse workers in Taiwan in the 1980s.

The First Origin Story

There are two main stories of how boba tea came to be. In one narrative, bubble tea is traced back to the 1980s in Taichung, Taiwan, when Ms. Lin Hsi Hui took the tapioca off of her Taiwanese dessert and added it to her iced tea.

Her boss, tea-room owner Mr. Liu Han-Chieh had recently begun serving iced-tea after a visit to Japan, yet had no plans to alter the traditional recipe.

However, when employee Lin Hsi Hui’s co-workers noticed her unique addition of tapioca balls to the iced tea, it became an instantaneous hit amongst employees. After recognizing its popularity in-store, owner Han-Chieh added the drink to his shop’s menu. Soon, it became the tearoom’s most frequently ordered drink.

Chun Shui Tang - The first shop to ever sell boba tea

The Second Origin Story

The other story claims that Tu Tsong-he, a teahouse owner in Tainan, Taiwan, was inspired to add white tapioca balls to his tea after seeing them in the market.

He began calling it “pearl tea” as the boba looked like the precious gems sitting in the black tea. He soon added honey and brown sugar to make the tea sweet and gave his customers the option of black tapioca as well.

Although we cannot confirm which of these two people was the first to invent bubble tea, we do know that a similar world-changing concept came out of these accidental experiments.

Now, Taiwan has hundreds of boba tea shops. The bubble industry has expanded, including a wide variety of tea flavors and add-ons such as pudding, popping boba, and jelly.

As of 2019, The boba industry was worth $2.4 billion and is expected to grow by another $2 billion in the next 7 years. Talk about a positive signal for boba fans!

Because of the popularity of boba tea, many new categories of products were created to enrich the boba experience. For example, the typical straws used in every-day life are too thin to allow the boba to pass.

So the rise of bubble tea created a demand for wider straws. The stainless steel and eco-friendly markets took over, producing wide reusable metal straws for avid boba drinkers. Who knows what big changes boba will cause next?

Boba Market Sizing Statistics* 

Why is boba so popular?

1. Unique taste and edible experience

First and foremost, the drinking experience of bubble tea is like no other. You first puncture a wide mouthed straw through a plastic covering on top of the cup.

From there, depending on your flavor and topping, you drink tea through the straw and find chewy or bursting pearls sucked into your mouth that you can enjoy simultaneously. Sounds a bit different then slurping on a smoothie from smoothie king, huh?

2. Wide variety of flavors and toppings

Boba tea is served with either a milk-base or fruit-base. Some bubble tea flavors are very unique and taste like nothing else on the market.

Some of these flavors include original milk, matcha, taro, honeydew, strawberry, green apple, passion fruit, mango, lemon, watermelon, grape, lychee, peach, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, banana, avocado, coconut, and kiwi. Beyond the base of the drink, boba tea is special because of its toppings. Some toppings include boba, popping boba, jelly, red bean and pudding.

3. Aesthetic Primed for Social Media Sharing

Boba tea looks quite unique. We know that, and now (hopefully) you do too. Well, part of the appeal of boba tea is just this. Boba tea has become popular in part due to the fact that many customers share it on their social media pages, showing their friends the uniqueness of the drink they bought.

This pairs with the fact that there are so many different varieties of boba tea. People love to share their custom choice of boba tea on their Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat!

Is boba tea unhealthy?

Average Boba nutritional information (via Healthline)

In brief, it depends on what boba tea you order.

Contrary to the belief of some, traditional bubble tea is not a healthy drink. According to Healthline, bubble tea contains a lot of sugar, calories, and fat.

Healthline notes that bubble tea contains so much sugar that it is almost equivalent to drinking soda. There are also many different types of bubble tea, including milk bubble tea. Milk bubble tea is especially high in sugar.

Due to the common knowledge that tea is a healthy beverage option, many assume the same for boba tea.

Some of these assumptions are valid - the benefits of traditional tea (depending on the grade) primarily come from antioxidants, and these benefits include improved brain function, cancer protection, fat loss and a lowered risk of heart disease.

Green Tea also includes plant chemicals which helps reduce inflammation and shields cells from damage.

So if tea is good, and milk can be too, wouldn’t boba milk tea be great for you? Incorrect. Bubble Tea in many cases is seen as a ‘guilty-treat’, or dessert due to the large amount of sugar typically included in each cup.

In addition to the added sugar, many fruit boba teas you'll find at local boba shops use syrups filled with artificial sweeteners and functionless ingredients to improve the taste of the drink.

And finally, as tapioca pearls are starch, they are inherently high in calorie count (100 per cup of boba tea). As you can see, the unhealthy side to boba shows itself the second you focus on everything besides the tea.

Is Boba Vegan?

The short answer - For the most part yes, just make sure you ask an employee. (Some cups aren’t)

As mentioned earlier, the typical boba in milk boba (Tapioca) is a starch, and it has no gelatin in it. Because of this, if you do make boba at home it’ll be pretty easy to follow a vegan diet.

On a similar note, the popping pearls in fruit boba are made with seaweed extract and a calcium compound - which again has no gelatin. In the drink, the fruit flavor is usually created from a puree or syrup and thus are nearly always vegan.

Coming back to the milk boba, the milk itself is where you will usually find the only component that may not be vegan.

Most boba shops use vegan creamer such as oat milk, almond milk or nut milk. However, this is where it is critically important that you ask an employee. Some shops do use cow’s milk which of course does not meet the vegan standards for obvious reasons.

On a positive note, most boba shops offer vegan friendly milk alternatives so you can enjoy the same experience without worrying about your diet. Bottoms up!

Where did tapioca, or the ‘boba’ in bubble tea come from?

The history of boba tea is a long, winding, and complicated one, but that of tapioca is much easier to follow. Tapioca is the main ingredient in traditional milk-based boba tea.

It is a starch extracted from cassava roots. Cassava plants are native to the Americas, but they are now grown in tropical regions around the world, including Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

The first recorded use of tapioca was in Europe, in 1544. The Portuguese brought cassava to Africa, where it was cultivated and used to make a flour.

The flour was then exported to Asia, where tapioca pudding was made from it. For centuries, tapioca pudding was a delicacy in South and Southeast Asia, but it was not the only starch-based pudding to gain popularity.

In the 19th century, starch-based puddings, including tapioca pudding, became popular in Europe and North America. The most popular starch-based pudding was the English version, which was called “sago pudding.” Sago is slightly different from cassava, and it is native to Asia.

Although we don’t know the exact year when tapioca was first made into pearls, we do know that it was invented in the islands of Southeast Asia (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and East Timor).

It was commonly used in dishes to increase the texture and taste experience, and eventually made its way to Taiwan. This is where it was first infused in milk tea to create boba tea.

Cassava Root (Where Tapioca comes from)

How is the ‘boba’ in boba tea made?

Tapioca balls are derived from the cassava plant. The process of making tapioca balls involves cutting the cassava root into small pieces, then boiling it for about 30 minutes or until it becomes soft and the juice can be extracted.

The juice of the cassava root is then used to make tapioca balls. After the juice is extracted from the tapioca balls, they are then sun dried and packaged.

Many people wonder how the tapioca balls are made into different shapes. The tapioca balls are made into different shapes by using different tools.

For example, the tapioca balls are made into flower shapes by using a flower cutter, and the tapioca balls are made into cubes by using a cube cutter. The tapioca balls are then stored in a refrigerator for at least 2 days before being used in a drink.

Turning tapioca into boba

How to make boba at home?

Now that you know nearly all there is about boba tea, it’s time for you to learn how to make it yourself.

First, let’s start off with the supplies. Depending on the type of boba, you first want to choose your ideal topping. For the sake of this example, we’ll use a tapioca pearl.

You’ll need to purchase a pack of bubble tea pearls, which you can find easily on amazon and walmart. Second, make sure you get your preferred tea, milk (or fruit pulp if you prefer), some brown sugar, and you’ll be all set to go.

1. Mix water and your preferred tea into a medium-sized pot and place the heat on high. Bring this to a boil, remove the pot and let the tea cool until it reaches room temperature.

2. Take out another medium-sized pot, and fill it with water. Heat the water on high and wait until it boils. When boiling, add the tapioca pearls and leave boiled for 15-20 minutes. After 10 minutes, check from time to time until pearls are softened.

3. Use a strainer to pick up and drain the pearls

4. Place the strainer with the pearls on top of a bowl. Add brown sugar to the strainer and pour the hot water over it.

5. Stir the pearls until the brown sugar is dissolved. Let the pearls soak in the brown sugar syrup for 30 minutes, then leave the pearls aside until ready.

6. When ready, place the pearls (and ice if you’d like) into glasses, add the brown sugar syrup, tea, and milk (again if you’d like), until you reach a taste and sweetness you love.

7. Stir, grab a straw and enjoy!

Where to buy bubble tea?

The easiest way to get boba tea is to search on google ‘boba shops near me’. The large majority of boba tea is made fresh and sold at boba shops that specialize in just that.

These boba shops are sometimes ‘mom and pop’ shops or are franchises. Beyond boba shops, many asian restaurants and asian grocery stores sell the drink either fresh or in a can.

Bubble tea is popular in many states in the United States. More than half of the boba tea stores in the U.S. are in California.

Finally, there are new innovations to boba tea such as goba tea which sells a healthy boba in a bottle available for purchase online. Just search up ‘boba to-go’ on google to find all your portable boba tea options!

A packed boba shop

Conclusion

Invented in the 1980s and growing in popularity ever sense, boba tea has proven to be more than a ‘fad’ for many reasons. The popularity of boba is growing day-by-day, with an expected growth rate of just shy of 8% (per year!) over the next seven years.

These milk, and fruit-based teas created their own category of beverage and introduced the world to an entirely novel beverage experience.

Although the highest volume of customers are between the ages of 18-35, boba is a beverage enjoyed by those of all ages. From young children to grandparents, the world cannot seem to get enough of the chewy or bursting experience found in boba tea.

As boba fanatics ourselves, we believe that boba tea has not yet scratched the surface of its full potential and reach of new audiences but it has definitely grown over time in the hearts of many.

We hope to find you sharing your first bottle of boba next time we check our social media!

Cheers!