Boba – or bubble – tea emerged sometime in the eighties in Taiwan, although exactly how and when it was created is still debated. Whatever its origins, it didn't take long for the milky tea mixed with black pearl-like tapioca balls to become a globally famous source of edible fun.
‘I've always enjoyed indulging and trying new teas,’ says Jasmine Kim, the 27-year-old co-founder of Sammee, a bubble tea brand in LA County, US, which she launched with her husband in 2020. ‘Not many drinks have toppings. Boba is more than a drink, it's an experience.’
With ingredients ranging from coconut jellies and non-dairy milks to matcha foams and soft serve, bubble tea keeps on finding ways to reinvent itself. There are seemingly endless ways to customize your boba, via countless colors and flavors, from strawberry syrups to popping grass-jelly pearls – and even cheese foams.
But, despite all the ways that bubble tea has been refashioned for a new age in an increasingly global market featuring largely American-influenced tastes, experts say nostalgia for the original bubble tea varieties remains strong.
However you like it, as the boba bubble grows around the world, it doesn't look likely to burst soon.
Globally, the bubble tea industry was calculated to be worth $2.1 billion in 2019. From Taiwan, it spread to other Asian countries and then on to North America, the world's next biggest market, where it has become a symbol of Asian-American identity.
Even in Europe, which has typically lagged behind other regions when it comes to the bubble tea boom, the market is worth more than $300 million today. In the UK alone, it's become completely normal, even expected, to find independent bubble tea stalls and Asian franchises on the streets of almost every major city. On Instagram, #bubbletea has been used almost 3 million times.
By 2030, the market in ready-to-drink tea and coffee is forecast to reach almost $168 billion, with specialist boba brands at the forefront of the wave, according to analyst firm Grand View Research.
The pandemic forced a shift. Cafes were shut. What were boba lovers to do? Sammee, with its make-at-home kits, provided what became a popular solution. ‘It was an easy way for people to still get their favorite drinks while they were stuck at home,’ says Jasmine, who works in brand marketing for a tech firm and launched Sammee as a side hustle.
She says her kits were ‘wildly successful’ during the pandemic, with bosses at Amazon, Apple and Google all making orders for ‘virtual team activities, or gifts for new hires’.
A number of other new brands have also been quick to reinvent this delicacy for a contemporary customer. Some – like Mokko from Taiwan and The TeaShed and Dot Dot from the UK – have also launched at-home bubble tea kits.
Dot Dot, a cafe founded in 2020 by Yandis Ying and Susie Lau, packages its DIY teas in reusable bamboo steamers along with a wooden spoon and cotton muslin brewing bags. Yandis says that, while the UK is still an ‘emerging market’ for bubble tea, the kits have proved to be a popular gift with online shoppers.
The TeaShed offers ‘party’ kits that even include takeaway cups for those not wanting to completely forgo the cafe experience.
Others are tapping into the grab-and-go market. BUBLUV, based in New York, and Twrl, from Los Angeles, both offer ready-made teas that cater to customers who want convenience. ‘We don't have time to go and wait in line at cafes,’ says Olivia Chen, co-founder of Twrl, which offers canned, pea-milk-based tea – a world first. ‘We have to do laundry, do Zoom calls, we're out of the door at seven in the morning. It's surprising this has never been done before.’
Co-founder Pauline Ang, a former creative director for brands including Starbucks and Pepsi, wanted to bring that on-the-go ease into the tea realm. ‘When we were growing up, it was all about instant coffee,’ she says. ‘Then Starbucks started making these beautiful lattes and now people spend money on takeaway coffee every day. The same thing is now happening with tea; we're the natural evolution of the trend.’
Bubble tea 2.0
‘At first, boba tea was intriguing because it was foreign, but then it became common and we've seen the boom in the boba tea cafe over the last 10 years,’ says Andrea Hernández, founder of Snaxshot, a newsletter about food and drink trends.
This evolution poses a real opportunity for market growth. According to Andrea, the cafe has ‘reached a point of plateau’. It no longer feels new. ‘But these boba tea brands are getting more premium and more mature. When they're sold in supermarkets, they appeal to people who wouldn't queue up at one of those cafes. That kind of convenience can't be unlearned,’ she says.
Premiumization (increasing a product's appeal by emphasizing its quality) puts a focus on bubble tea's ingredients for the first time. Sammee uses loose-leaf tea, while The TeaShed uses real fruit syrups, as opposed to artificial alternatives. Twrl sources its tea from single-origin, family-run farms in China and Japan, and blends it with pea milk – from a carbon and soil-regenerative perspective, it's a more sustainable alternative to oat, soy or almond, according to Twrl's Olivia.
And it's this that's likely to capture the European audience. ‘Bubble tea is still growing in Europe, but we're forecasting [the biggest] growth in the high-quality tea arena, with better-for-you ingredients,’ says Jennifer Creevy, food and drink director at trend forecasting agency WGSN.
New and healthy
There's more opportunity in Europe for the more health-driven boba peddled by the likes of BUBLUV and Twrl, says Jennifer. She points out that both brands offer low-calorie, low- or no-sugar and plant-based milk options.
‘It's a better-for-you solution,’ says BUBLUV's Diana Ark Chen, who tried and tested some 200 recipes with more than 60 manufacturers before launching her brand. ‘I noticed how much sugar and carbs were in my cafe-bought bobas – the tapioca pearls are made of starch, brown sugars and food coloring, and can be up to 200 calories per quarter cup – and that's just for the boba,’ she says.
Teas can also be a good alternative for those cutting down on caffeine. ‘I like my coffee in the morning but, by the afternoon, I get that jittery, nervous energy,’ says Twrl's Olivia. Her tea is lower in caffeine than coffee and, she says, aids digestion. ‘People keep telling me they're cutting down on caffeine but still want to drink something. Tea is the perfect coffee replacement.’ It gives boba ‘more mass appeal’, according to Diana. ‘It can be consumed more often.’
The Bubble Magik boba concession at Selfridges department store in central London is a great success with customers looking for alcohol-free refreshment, many of whom are from the Middle East and China. Dot Dot's Yandis says their Bubble Spritz drinks, which come in either lychee and raspberry or minty passion fruit flavors, are ‘just like a cocktail’. They're made from tea and sparkling water and, at £5.25, are cheaper than a mocktail in a London pub.
If the next evolutionary step in boba drinks is caffeine-free, canned and convenient, could the next iteration of the boba cafe be a booze-free bar?