Boba Tea Origin: A Brief History of This Taiwanese Drink

Updated on: February 25, 2022
Author: Nick
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Boba Tea Origin - Bubble Tea Shop

You’ve come across bubble tea recently, or you’ve been an avid boba lover for many years, and now you want to learn more about the Boba Tea origin!

These famous tea-based drinks with chewy tapioca balls are taking over the world, and there is no stopping them. Bubble tea has managed to sustain and gain popularity all over the world, not just its country of origin: Taiwan. 

Sometimes I wonder who on Earth came up with such an idea? 

My curiosity to learn about the origins of boba tea has landed me on a research mission, and I’m now ready to report back! 

So stick with me to learn more about where bubble tea comes from. By the way, boba tea is also known as pearl milk tea or pearl tea, bubble milk tea, tapioca milk tea or tapioca tea, boba milk tea or just BOBA. 

Could there be any more names?!

Maybe...check our page discussing the nuances of calling this drink bubble tea vs boba to find out!

For the purposes of this post though, we’ll interchangeably use all above names!

Where Does Boba Tea Originate From?

Back in the 1600s during the partial Dutch colonization of Taiwan, the combination of tea, milk, and sugar was introduced and became popular in Taiwan. This milk tea drinking culture endured up to modern times.

It was also during the colonization times that tapioca was introduced to Taiwan (and Asia in general). Tapioca comes from the cassava root, a plant native from South America. 

This introduced another type of starch in Asia and Southeast Asia. Tapioca starch versions of already familiar dishes started to become more popular over time. For example, sago pearls were slowly replaced by tapioca pearls, mainly due to tapioca being a cheaper option.

So before bubble tea was invented, shaved iced and tapioca pearls were already relatively common desserts in Taiwan.

Asian Americans

Let’s fast forward to the 1980s, which is when the story of bubble tea begins. In Taiwan, drinking tea at stalls was (and continues to be) a common practice  (as in many locations in East Asia). So it is believed that someone had the bright idea of mixing shaved ice, tapioca balls, and milk tea!  The result? The first classic milk tea originated. 

The name “Boba” was suggested, considering the spherical shape of the tapioca pearls. Boba is slang for breasts in Chinese; however, it’s not considered an offensive name. Bubble tea in Taiwan is what soda and coffee are in the US!

With time, boba tea evolved and grew out of Taiwan. Tea stall owners started introducing new boba flavors and toppings. There are now a plethora of different boba flavors and boba toppings for every type of preference.

What Tradition Influenced The Origin Of Boba?

Although the drink might seem like a recent trend, boba has been a popular drink in Asian countries since the 80s. The exact origins of boba are considered a topic of debate to date. Different people claim the discovery of the delicious drink. 

The first story regarding the boba tea origins goes…

The Hanlin Tea Room of Tainan claims that bubble tea was invented in 1986. The story says that the teahouse owner Tu Tsong-he saw tapioca balls in the local market of Ah-bó-liâu. There he thought of the idea of using the tapioca pearls in his tea. Thereafter, this new tea with tapioca bubbles which was shaken creating more bubbles (i.e. bubble tea!) became a hot seller at his shop. Hanlin now operates over 80 branches of his shop in Taiwan and around the world.. 

The second story regarding the Boba tea origins goes…

The founder of the Chun Shi Tang tea room in Taichung, Liu Han-Chieh, visited Japan during the 1980s. There she was served cold coffee. Inspired by Japan, she decided to serve cold Chinese tea. This new technique did wonders for her business. Soon, multiple chains were established that started serving cold tea. 

According to the product development manager of the company, she invented the first bubble tea in 1988. During a staff meeting, she poured tapioca balls into her cold  tea and gave it to everyone to drink. Everyone in the company loved the boba. Soon, the newly invented bubble tea became popular and the top-selling product. 

Boba Life

So it’s hard to know for sure who invented bubble tea!

Both companies actually filed lawsuits against each other to determine once and for all who was the true inventor of bubble tea!

Alas, despite this, nobody was able to successfully trademark or patent bubble tea, or establish who invented it.


What is the Original Bubble Tea Flavor?

Back in the 1980s, when bubble tea had just been just invented, there weren't as many boba tea flavors as we see today in bubble tea shops. 

What is known today as the classic milk tea is deemed to be the original and most popular bubble tea. The classic milk tea bubble tea is made with black tea, fresh milk, chewy tapioca pearls (often brown sugar pearls), and ice shavings. The tea is typically sweetened with sugar syrup or condensed milk. 

Finally, the drink is shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker. This step was the reason behind the bubbles in the bubble tea.

non dairy creamer, egg pudding, almond jelly, tiger sugar, grass jelly

Frequently Asked Questions

When did boba come to America?

You might have thought that the boba trend is one of the latest trends. However, to your surprise, the drink has been around for longer than you think. The first bubble tea shop came to America in the 1990s and since then bubble tea chains have been constantly popping out (pun intended) around the world with growing popularity. 

It’s not hard to find bubble tea these days, thanks to the Taiwanese Immigrants who brought this delicious beverage and decided to share a piece of their cultural identity with us.

Has boba changed over time?

Yes! Since its infancy in the 1980s boba tea has become a phenomenon. For example, there are so many tea or fruit bases and toppings you can choose from that there are likely several hundred combinations!  

People like boba so much that there is a whole boba paraphernalia industry out there, from reusable boba cups, to boba plush and even boba mini fridges!

Are there different types of boba?

Yes, there are many types of boba! If we are talking about boba pearls, there are different types of tapioca balls including clear (flavorless) tapioca pearls, white tapioca balls, black tapioca balls (made with brown sugar), golden tapioca pearls (made with honey), and many more. Really, tapioca pearls can be infused with any flavor of your liking!

There are also types of boba pearls, such as popping boba and crystal boba, that do not use tapioca!

There are many different boba tea flavors as well. Some of the popular ones include: 

Black Pearl Tea - Bubble Tea Shops

Bottom Line 

You are well on your way to becoming a boba expert! So, next time you decide to go out with your friends and have your favorite bubble tea, you will have a new thing to talk about. Tell all your friends about the fascinating boba tea origins. 

Let us know in the comments section what you think about the origin stories of bubble tea, or if you have a new perspective. I hope you enjoyed reading the article.

Happy bobbing!

Nick loves coffee... Actually, he NEEDS coffee! So, he has dedicated his time to learning all he can about this magical bean. He can make a mean latte, is obsessed with flat whites, and is always up for a cup of java!
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