The Rise of Boba Tea & Bubble Tea in the United States
Anyone who knows what bubble tea is knows that once you drink it…it can be hard to stop. There’s just something about this special concoction that keeps you craving more! Maybe it’s the soft, chewy tapioca balls or the different brews of teas that cover a wide array of flavors. You can choose from something very sweet to mild or even a little bitter—bubble tea has everyone covered!
While a popular, well-known drink in Taiwan, the U.S. has increasingly seen bubble tea shops pop up all over the country in recent years. What was once something that many people had never even heard of, bubble tea has arisen strong in its ever-growing popularity. Seemingly overnight it has found a place in Americans’ normal day-to-day life. It’s an easy, go-to craving fix and many who have discovered bubble tea have found the shops to be places they can study in, get work done, or simply hang out with friends.
1980s: BUBBLE TEA IS CREATED IN TAIWAN
Bubble tea goes by a few names—depending on your preference. You’ll see we switch between boba and bubble tea, which both work (especially depending on where in the U.S. you live), but you can also call it milk tea, pearl milk tea or in Chinese—zhēn zhū nǎi chá.
Bubble tea popped up in Taiwan during the 1980s. Although the exact creator is unknown, two shops claim to be the original founder of bubble tea. Tu Tsong-He, owner of The Hanlin Tea Room in Tainan, Taiwan, claims that he created the drink in 1986 when he saw white tapioca balls in the Ya Mu Liao market. After seeing them, he implemented them into his tea, thus the pearl tea was born. Later on, his shop began using black tapioca pearls by mixing brown sugar or honey into them.
Lui Han-Chieh, owner of Chun Shui Tang in Taichung, Taiwan, claims he created bubble tea after noticing during a visit to Japan that they serve their coffee cold. Serving tea cold increased his sales, leading to multiple chains. Supposedly, Chun Shui Tang is the more widely accepted creator with product development manager, Lui Hsiu Hui, bringing a Taiwanese dessert—fen yuan, a sweetened tapioca pudding—to a meeting and pouring the tapioca pearls into her iced tea and drinking it. Afterwards, they supposedly loved the idea and put it on the menu for it to make up 80 to 90% of their sales.
In Taiwan, since the tapioca pearls were originally white, they were called “pearls” not boba. It wasn’t until later that people began calling it boba when they switched to using black tapioca balls.
Regardless of whoever invented bubble tea, it has now grown to become a proud creation attributed to the Taiwanese culture. A depiction of bubble tea was considered for Taiwan’s redesigned passport in 2020, but alas, did not make the cut. (Photo: Cementcraft Illustration)
As bubble tea spread across Asia, it was bound to come to the United States eventually. Initially, boba’s popularity grew in communities with high populations of Chinese and Taiwanese Americans. What many may not know is that boba tea has existed in the United States since the 1990s. Arriving alongside Taiwanese immigrants, boba tea found its way into the United States, particularly in California where many Taiwanese immigrants settled. However, in the early days, boba tea was something you’d find in Asian-American communities in restaurants where you’d have to ask for it—there were no bubble tea shops.
It wasn’t until the first shop opened in Los Angeles, California, that more followed. Ten Ren, Quickly, Tapioca Express and Lollicup were renowned as the first boba tea dedicated shops, and all were owned by Taiwanese immigrants. That’s why you’ll find a large hub of boba tea shops centered in California, and Los Angeles-area boba tea shops have become an icon for the Chinese and Taiwanese Americans who live there. As pearl milk tea has made its way from the West Coast, where it is commonly referred to as “boba tea”, the East Coast has adapted a different name calling it “bubble tea”.
2010s: BOBA TEA RISES IN POPULARITY IN THE UNITED STATES
While it wasn’t always a well-known fad, many believe that the Fung Brothers are the cause of boba tea’s sudden popularity. For those in the Asian-American community, bubble tea was a normal part of life but, supposedly, it was hard to articulate the experience. It wasn’t until the Fung Brothers’ song “Bobalife” came out in 2013 that the boba life experience was captured in a clear way. When the brothers sing about meeting an ex in a boba shop and that being part of life—basically you’ll always run into people you know because boba tea is a hub for the community. The video made the rounds in national press and, with more than 2 million views, more people began to explore what boba tea was, giving bubble tea traction to spread in popularity across the country.
In response, bubble tea chains like Mr. Wish, Kung Fu Tea and Boba Guys have become a go-to spot to meet everyone’s bubble tea needs across the nation. And of course, some existing American chains want to join in on the action and ride the wave of boba tea love as Dunkin Donuts recently launched a test run of boba tea in Massachusetts (a drink with popping boba) and Del Monte Foods has created a bubble fruit product also featuring popping boba.
Still, many have speculated at the popularity of this foreign drink, wondering how it will last in a country that has largely been dominated by coffee. But according to the Tea Association of the USA Inc, tea has become increasingly popular in the United States as more discover tea for its health benefits. So, what better drink to explore tea than bubble tea?
And the biggest and sweetest cherry on top, boba has gained such a huge following that we’ll be getting the long-awaited bubble tea emoji sometime in 2020! Absolutely can’t wait!
BOBA TEA’S EVOLUTION
One of the things that has made bubble tea so attractive, especially in a country like the United States whose citizens primarily drink coffee, is that bubble tea is so versatile. As we’ve said, bubble tea can come in an assortment of flavors with such a wide range of ingredients; and the options only keep increasing as more shops open, vying to win customers over with innovative, fresh and unique drinks or sweets featuring boba. Once just a cold, tea drink with foam and tapioca pearls, bubble tea has expanded to include so much more.
Besides, boba tea has expanded to include mocha and coffee flavored bubble teas so now, you don’t even need to choose! Get your bubble tea and coffee together in one.
As boba tea continues to evolve, people are exploring ways to mix tapioca pearls with various desserts. Boba ice cream, boba cakes, boba macarons and more are popping up in shops around the U.S. These sweet blends of dessert and tea either feature boba mixed into the treats or the treats themselves placed on top of the bubble tea (check out Surreal Creamery’s Floateas, featuring a bubble tea ice cream float). Photo: Surreal Creamery, Facebook.
Bubble tea cakes have become a popular creation as people yearn to broaden the scope for boba lovers out there along with pancakes, cupcakes and more! Plus, what boba lover doesn’t want to have a boba themed birthday party (partea ;-)). One of our personal favorites is the brown sugar boba ice cream bars that can be found at H-Mart and other Asian grocery stores. And if you don’t want to have to choose between a night out and bubble tea…well, don’t fret anymore—there is now alcoholic boba teas or alcohol-infused boba!
Bubble tea has gained such a large fan base that it has even expanded past the food category and into cute designs such as bubble tea stickers, boba plushies, bubble tea themed clothing and there are even boba-tea inspired candles (check out Asian Boba Girl’s line).
Truly, there is a flavor and form of bubble tea out there for everyone!
2020: BITSY BOBA IS FOUNDED
Bitsy Boba’s founder Michelle discovered bubble tea in 2005 while in Hong Kong as part of the study abroad experience Semester at Sea. A West Coast friend shouted “bubble tea” as they were walking around, and that moment forever changed Michelle’s life. She was intrigued and soon became boba obsessed.
Before bubble tea’s meteoric rise in popularity in the United States, Michelle struggled to find boba near her East Coast home. She had to travel to New York City, scouring different areas of the five boroughs, to find it.
While in Philadelphia for college, she was able to find a Chinese restaurant called The Rising Tide (sadly no longer in operation) in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that served bubble tea from a little bar inside the restaurant. Michelle visited Rising Tide countless times, usually getting Thai milk tea with boba. She brought many friends and family members to Rising Tide over the years, with one friend enjoying her introduction to bubble tea so much they went back a second time that night.
Michelle’s love for bubble tea has led her to try boba in at least a dozen countries, sampling everything from mall boba to bubble tea trucks. Her boba obsession is well-known to her friends, family, coworkers, former roommates and acquaintances. She's even introduced her older son to boba to the point where he regularly asks, "Mama, can we get boba today?" or, on other occasions, chants "Bubble tea! Bubble tea!"
After several years of friends and family sending her links to boba tea themed merchandise and products, Michelle decided to create her own boba brand, blending the fun of bubble tea with cute and whimsical characters. In spring 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and thanks to no longer facing a daily one to two hour commute, Michelle was able to launch Bitsy Boba LLC, a small, woman-owned business, created from a love for everything boba.