You probably have heard of bubble tea. It has exploded in popularity over recent years. Its iconic look and different flavors make it a unique drink. Lately, the boba tea look has transcended the world of teas and you can find it in ice creams, plushies and even coffee!
Perhaps you’ve never tried it and would like to know what this fuss is about. Or maybe you’re a seasoned boba head looking to learn more about your favorite drink.
Either way, welcome to our ultimate guide to bubble tea!
We’ll tell you where it originated, what it is, how to order it, its health and environmental impacts (and how you can help), and everything else in between that you could ever want to know about bubble tea.
Let’s get bobbing!
Bubble tea is usually an iced tea-based drink with milk, and chewy tapioca pearls at the bottom. It generally is sweetened; the pearls are usually infused with brown sugar or a sugar syrup.
The typical bubble tea taste is a mix of bitter and sweet which makes this a refreshing drink. The pearls are soft and chewy with a hint of sweetness that bursts as you bite into them.
Boba tea has evolved to include not just tea-based drinks but fruit-based too. The toppings now range from tapioca pearls, to popping boba, crystal boba, jellies, sweet pudding, and fruit.
This allows for hundreds of boba flavors to choose from, which is one of the reasons why this versatile drink is so popular. It can suit everyone’s taste.
The look of boba tea itself is unusual and iconic. It’s typically served in a plastic cup with a lid, and a large straw (we’ll talk about the plastic issue a little later on).
It can come in an array of Instagram worthy colors with the traditional tapioca balls chillin like bubbles at the bottom of the cup.
Boba tea, bubble tea, milk tea, pearl milk tea, pearl tea, tapioca tea. Are they different drinks or is someone trying to confuse us?
It must be a conspiracy to confuse us because they are all the same thing.
The tapioca balls that are traditionally associated with this drink are also known as boba, which is why it’s called boba tea.
And to confuse matters further, the balls or boba can also be referred to as boba pearls or just pearls, which is why this drink can also be called pearl tea.
The boba look like bubbles floating at the bottom of the drink which is why it is also called bubble tea. The bubbles also refer to the way the drink is shaken.
Even though boba tea can also be called milk tea, this is generally a category of tea drinks. So sometimes you may need to specify that you actually want a classic pearl milk tea, made with black tea, fresh milk, and tapioca balls.
The mixture of tea, milk, and sugar originated in Taiwan in the 1600s during the Dutch colonization of the country.
Cassava which is a traditional ingredient of boba tea was also introduced during this time. Cassava was a common ingredient in Taiwanese desserts before boba tea became popular.
It was in the 1980s that bubble tea was created by introducing cassava (tapioca balls) to tea, milk, and sugar.
The story of the origin of bubble tea, while debatable, says that in The Hanlin Tea Room of Tainan in 1986, the owner Tu Tsong-he decided to use the tapioca pearls in his tea. It became a big seller in his tearoom and still is today with over 80 boba tea shops in Taiwan and throughout the world.
Another tale of the origins starts in Chun Shi Tang tearoom in Taichung. The owner Liu Han-Chief visited Japan in the 1800s where she was given cold coffee and she decided to serve cold tea instead. In 1988 she added tapioca balls to the cold tea which became a hit.
When you first visit a bubble tea shop, the menu might intimidate you. There are so many options and you can mix flavors and toppings to experiment.
The original bubble tea drink is also known as classic pearl milk tea which is black tea, milk, and brown sugar tapioca boba pearls. It’s still a favorite and is a good one to start with if you’re a newbie.
Honeydew milk tea is a popular choice containing honeydew juice, tea, milk, and pearls. The tea used is usually black or green, but you can pair it with any tea. The honeydew juice gives a subtle sweetness to the grassy green tea that compliments it well.
Taro milk tea is another fave, made from taro, milk, and pearls.
But what is Taro?
You might not be familiar with this purple root vegetable if you’re from the Western World. Taro is similar to the yam (sweet potato) with hints of nuttiness or vanilla.
The resulting taro milk tea is a Parma Violet feast for the eyes with the sweetness of the taro balanced with the creaminess of the milk.
Any milk can be used for the creaminess, but oat milk, coconut milk or almond milk can pair well with certain flavors for an additional layer of flavor.
The bubble tea recipe has spawned some unusual versions of itself. Some of these alternatives really can’t be classed as boba tea, but it doesn’t mean they’re not tasty.
The brown sugar boba ice cream bar is tiger milk tea in an ice cream bar. The creaminess of the milk with the sweetness of the brown sugar milk tea makes a refreshing treat on a hot and humid day. There are boba pearls hidden inside which give a burst of sweetness when you bite into these frozen spheres.
Dalgona boba coffee is a drink that has gone viral. Dalgona coffee is a whipped coffee made by mixing instant coffee with hot water and whipping it into soft peaks. Add some milk to a glass (either hot or cold) and top with the coffee mix. This bitterness from the coffee cuts through the sweetness for a perfect blend.
The dalgona boba coffee version has tapioca pearls that add a chewy treat to this drink.
While boba milk tea is usually a tea-based drink (surprising given its name, I know), coffee goes equally as well with the sweet and chewy pearls.
Everyone loves a latte, and the boba latte is just as good. A typical latte has a shot of espresso with frothy milk. The boba version has the espresso, milk, shaved ice, brown sugar syrup or sweetener, and boba pearls.
This milky coffee concoction goes perfectly with the sweet boba pearls.
Traditional bubble tea is made of a tea-based or fruit-based drink, with sweetener, and boba pearls.
We will discuss each component in detail which includes the base, pearls, and toppings.
The traditional boba pearls are brown sugar tapioca balls, however, there are now many other types of pearls including clear or flavored tapioca, popping boba, crystal boba, golden boba, and rainbow boba.
All of the tapioca pearls are made with tapioca starch, which is made from the cassava root, but are sweetened differently. Black or brown tapioca is the classic topping which is sweetened with dark brown sugar.
Bubble tea pearls can be purchased ready-made from some stores or online. Some only need to be placed in the microwave to heat up, some need to be boiled to the correct texture which can take up to 20 minutes.
You can easily make boba pearls at home using our bubble tea recipe. It doesn’t take many ingredients or take very long, and it means you can experiment with different types of flavors.
All you need is tapioca starch, (you can also use rice flour or all-purpose flour), brown sugar, and water. Here are some overall steps on how to make boba pearls, to give you an idea of what is involved.
But be sure to follow our detailed recipe on how to make boba at home, if you’re going to make them!
Tapioca pearls are still a firm favorite but just like the milk teas base, the range of toppings has expanded.
In the boba pearls category there is now popping boba, crystal boba, rainbow boba, to name a few.
Popping pearls are made through a process called spherification. They have a thin membrane with a type of juice in the center, which is why once you bite through the thin layer, you get a burst of juice, such as fruit juice.
They are made from water, fruit juice or syrup, sodium alginate, and calcium lactate.
It might be difficult to find these if you don’t live in a big city, but it isn’t too difficult to make at home. All you need are four ingredients, water, juice, powdered sodium alginate, and powdered calcium lactate.
Crystal boba are translucent and have a citrus taste.
Made from the konjac plant, a tropical flower from Southeast Asia, they are also known as agar boba, or white pearls.
They have a gelatin texture because of the agar which is a plant-based jelly-like agent made from seaweed extract (don’t worry it doesn’t taste like seaweed).
They are a great alternative to tapioca pearls for vegans and they are lower in calories with no fat.
Rainbow boba are crystal boba only dyed in reds and yellows.
Golden boba is a tapioca ball infused with honey instead of brown sugar, which gives them their golden color and their name.
Bubble tea usually has a tea base but it can also have fruit juices such as Taro. More recently coffee has also been used as a base.
The classic pearl milk tea has a black tea base, usually a strong tea like an Assam. However, you can have any type of tea such as any type of black or green tea, chamomile, mint tea, anything you can think of. You can use either tea bags or loose tea leaves, and use the best teapot to brew your loose leaf tea!
The black and green tea base will go with most other flavors whereas a lot of other teas will only suit a small number of additions to it.
Coffee can also be used as a boba milk tea base such as the boba tea latte.
Aside from boba pearls there is a range of boba toppings such as egg pudding, jellies like grass jelly, and red bean that can also be added.
Egg pudding may not sound like a topping you’d want to put into your drink but it is basically a custard similar to a flan. It is creamier with less chew and makes for a great alternative to tapioca in your bubble tea.
Jellies are popular too. They are made from gelatin and can have lots of different flavors to enhance the bubble tea base. There are aloe jellies, lychee jellies, grass, coconut, strawberry, among many more.
Red bean, also known as adzuki beans, have a powdery texture and subtle sweetness.
There is a waxy layer which may not sound appealing but the different textures added to the bubble tea can be interesting. Red beans are best paired with sweet bases.
To make your bubble tea vegan, check if the tapioca pearls are made with honey as these may not suit you.
Gelatin is usually not suitable for vegetarians or vegans, but you can check the ingredients as they can also be made from agar jelly.
You can also skip the milk or use an alternative such as soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk.
Bubble tea is iconic for the way it is presented. It comes in a plastic cup with a lid and fat straw. The straws are wide to ensure the pearls can go through them.
Bubble tea has become such a huge craze that the amount of plastic waste has become controversial. Plastic waste is a hazard to our environment, causing pollution in our seas, and resulting in climate change.
There are now re-usable boba cups and straws which reduce the plastic waste associated with boba milk tea.
This not only helps the environment, but it saves you money as it can be reused. Plus, some disposable cups contain toxins that are harmful to us.
Bubble milk tea shops may give money off if you bring your own cup too.
A menu can be intimidating in boba tea shops. There are a lot of choices of boba drinks, not only of flavors, but you have to decide whether you want it warm or cold, the sweetness level, and the type of topping you want.
Here’s how to order your bubble tea at bubble tea shops like a pro:
While this may seem complicated just for a drink, it’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.
If you can put a bubble tea logo on it then you can sell it to bubble tea lovers. Whatever you can think of, there’s a bubble tea version.
There’s boba plushies, mini fridges, skincare, keyrings, cups. The list goes on.
Let’s take a look at some of the products boba heads have come up with.
Bubble tea plushies are, like all plushies, very cute. They make great gifts (a gift for yourself).
There are lots of kinds but the Pearl Boba Tea Mochi Plush is a typical version.
It looks like bubble tea in a cup with a little straw poking out of the lid. It has two little eyes with a smiling face and two pink cheeks. The black dots at the bottom represent the tapioca pearls.
Another cutie is the Pusheen Boba Plushie. This cute cat plushie has little pointed ears, a smiling face, and little whiskers. It holds a bubble teacup with a pink straw. It makes the perfect companion when cozying up with your own bubble tea.
The Boba Mini Fridge is another popular bubble tea accessory. It has the classic boba tea artwork on the front with its cute little bubble tea face with pink cheeks and black dots at the bottom for the bubbles.
It even has a little straw poking out the top.
With removable shelves, this mini fridge can be organized to suit your needs. It can be used for storing boba or skincare.
It can keep things cool or warm with a varying temperature from 55 degrees up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Boba Tank iPhone Case is another great item for boba lovers. It has a bubble tea décor on the back with the tapioca pearls and a straw. The case is available in different sizes with sustainably sourced materials.
Although with the bubble tea decal on the back, you might find yourself craving bubble tea even more!
Unfortunately, all the plastic waste from bubble tea is contributing to pollution and climate change.
Every single day, there are 8 million new pieces of plastic in our oceans, killing one million marine animals every year.
The chemicals in plastics can also harm us and the pesticides and fertilizers used in the tea industry all contribute to pollution.
No drink is worth that.
Several countries have already started to ban single-use plastic such as San Francisco, Vancouver, and the home of bubble tea, Taiwan.
There are lots of reasons to use a reusable cup other than helping the planet. They can keep your drink warmer or cooler than disposables, and save you money as you don’t have to buy single-use plastic.
By using a reusable cup you’re making sure there’s no toxins in your cup, like there can be in plastic cups.
Plus they look way cooler than those boring transparent plastic cups.
Making your bubble tea at home means you can control the waste, you can ensure you are using Fairtrade ingredients, and it saves you money.
There are lots of bubble tea kits you can buy, or you can make everything from scratch. It’s pretty easy to make even the boba pearls at home.
And the best thing is that you can experiment with lots of different flavors.
Only use tea that is Fairtrade and sustainable in your boba tea.
Tea production can cause pollution in various ways including the use of chemical fertilizers and equipment that increase carbon emissions.
By supporting companies who use planting practices such as polycultures, a more sustainable way of growing tea, then you are helping to reduce pollution.
I know, don’t panic.
If you’re as obsessed about bubble tea as we are, you might be tempted to skip this section but it’s better to know what you’re putting into your body and how you can make your bubble tea healthier.
Tea is full of health benefits, so you could be forgiven for thinking that bubble tea is therefore just as healthy.
Unfortunately, bubble tea generally contains a lot of sugar and fat. There can also be additives and certain chemicals in boba tea, especially if powdered flavorings are used. These aren’t good for your health and can potentially cause chronic health problems.
There can be around 212 calories per 16 ounces for a classic milk tea and up to 300 calories for the unhealthiest boba tea.
Some bubble teas can have as much as 18.5 teaspoons of sugar! You may love the sugar hit from drinking boba, but with that much sugar, you might get diabetes too.
There was speculation that boba can cause cancer as a study in Germany reported there were carcinogenic chemicals in bubble tea, however, it was found they identified the compounds incorrectly.
The compounds aren’t technically carcinogenic but there is a risk they could cause cancer, although there is no scientific link at present.
To make your bubble tea healthier (but no less tasty), you can do the following:
Boba pearls are traditionally tapioca pearls. Tapioca pearls are made from tapioca starch from the cassava plant. This is mixed with water and brown sugar to make into a dough before boiling and adding sugar syrup.
There are many other boba pearls which are similar but honey or fruit juices can be used to give them their flavor.
There is no difference. They can be called tapioca pearls, boba pearls, tapioca balls, pearls, but they all mean the same thing.
The default will be tapioca pearls but if you want any other kind of boba pearl then specify which one, such as popping boba, crystal boba, or rainbow boba.
The best flavors tend to be the simplest such as the honeydew bubble tea or a classic milk tea.
Trying to find the best boba flavor is a good excuse to try as many as you can!
Yes! That’s what makes bubble tea so unique, because it’s a tea with chewy treats.
Boba pearls are soft and chewy and have a burst of flavor when you bite into them.
You can eat them while you drink or leave them until the end and eat them all.
It depends on what type of bubble tea you choose.
A classic milk tea can contain around 212 calories per 16 ounces, around 37g of sugar, 1.5 grams of fat, and 28 grams of carbohydrates.
A classic milk tea, made of black tea, milk, and sugar with tapioca balls is a great one to start with.
If you don’t like tea, then a taro bubble tea, made with juice instead is a good option.
Bubble tea has become a popular drink almost everywhere in the world.
From its home in Taiwan, it has evolved to become a versatile drink that has spawned a legion of fans.
Now you know everything about bubble tea, the only thing for you to do now is try some!
This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not meant to replace professional medical advice, treatment or diagnosis. Do not consume any type of coffee, tea or herbal infusion if you are allergic to it. The information in this article is not intended to treat serious medical conditions. Please seek professional medical advice before using home remedies.