Boba, bubble tea, pearls, tapioca balls; whatever the name, the chewy ball drink that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s has spread across the world and eventually become a foundational piece of Asian American culture in the United States, creating a sweeping shift in dessert and drink culture in the country. The global boba industry was valued at $2.4 billion in 2019, and is estimated to reach $4.3 billion by 2027, making this casual, milky, fruity drink one of the largest segments of the American beverage industry.
Although boba culture and the Asian diaspora are the main reasons that boba became so popular in the early 2000s, these days it’s become mainstream, where various styles and permutations have taken on a whole new level of creativity, inventiveness, and even lavishness. Boba has provided people an alternative social gathering space following the coffee shop mold, but with sweet chewy tapioca balls instead of caffeinated beans. These shops are ideal places to indulge in a drink culture that thrives because of its endless adaptation.
Boba shops have also been at the forefront of bringing the newest food trends from Asia to the U.S., such as cheese foam, butterfly pea, and fully handmade boba. At a time where the majority of food businesses have taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, boba shops have continued to thrive, especially in Los Angeles. Yelp labeled boba tea as the most popular delivery item being ordered in states like California during the early pandemic months of 2020. According to Yelp’s figures, the city of Los Angeles saw 36 percent more boba shop openings in 2021 vs. 2020. To become a true boba connoisseur, one must start with the basics. This is Eater LA’s primer to boba, or bubble tea, for devoted fans and newcomers alike.
What is boba?
Boba is made from tapioca starch, which is an extract from the South American cassava plant that found its way to Taiwan by way of Portuguese and Dutch traders and colonization. Boba is a dual-purpose term, used both for the drink and for the chewy tapioca balls floating within it. Drinks come in many different varieties, but the bases all begin similarly, using green tea, black tea, milk, or fruit juice bases. Boba balls start off white in color, when they are essentially flavorless but still have an extraordinary bouncy, satisfyingly chewy texture. They do not become dark brown spheres until they are boiled and marinated for hours in a caramelized syrup composed of brown sugar, honey, and hot water.The drink is typically served in a plastic cup with the toppings at the bottom that have to be sucked up through a straw that must be wide enough for the tapioca balls, or any other toppings to pass through. For shops that have the older film packaging instead of a dedicated opening, the unique wide straw also must have enough structural integrity to punch through the plastic seal.
Only a handful of shops actually make their own boba on the premises, a process which takes more time and resources because they must be made fresh. Most boba shops receive their boba supply from distributors, where they are prepackaged and freeze-dried. There, the boba can sit in storage for months at a time until ready to use. Staff will then cook boba throughout the day, keeping it ready to serve in the brown sugar syrup.
According to Alan Yu, co-founder of boba shop chain Lollicup and wholesale distributor Karat, “Boba should be kept warm throughout the day and continuously stirred. Cooked boba is good for four to six hours and leftovers must be tossed afterwards.” Yu opened his first boba shop, Lollicup, in San Gabriel, CA in 2000. His business, Karat by Lollicup, distributes over 50 percent of all boba in the U.S. and is one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of paper and plastic food-service products in the country.
Where was boba invented?
The origin of boba can be traced back to Taiwan, specifically the city of Tainan, where there are two tea shops that both claim to have invented the boba drinks we have come to love today: Chun Shui Tang and Hanlin Tea Room. Although boba purists continue to argue over who was the original creator, Taiwan-based journalist Clarissa Wei believes that people are looking at it all wrong. “Even prior to the 1980s, Q-rich [describing the texture] tapioca balls were a common topping for desserts, like the ubiquitous heaps of snow-like shaved ice found throughout Taiwan, while milk tea was already a favorite local drink.”
Wei, whose forthcoming cookbook Made in Taiwan celebrates Taiwan’s unique culinary identity, notes that tapioca pearls have been a mainstay in Taiwanese cuisine for generations. “Modern-day boba is simply an evolution of that. Farmers used to chew on it to help them cool down during the hot summer days,” says Wei.
Boba vs. Bubble Tea
Boba drinkers just can’t seem to agree on one universal name for the beverage. Common terms are bubble tea and boba; the latter became popular as a reference to the 1980s Hong Kong sex symbol Amy Yip, whose nickname, “Boba,” was used to refer to her large breasts. In Asia, ordering a drink using the word boba is considered rude, even vulgar, so the drinks are always referred to as either pearls or bubble tea. In the U.S., like with the terms soda, pop, and coke, the West Coast and Hawai‘i have adopted the slang term boba to refer to these drinks, whereas the other regions tend to use the term “bubble tea.”
Boba culture in the U.S.
Although boba culture became synonymous with Asian American youth culture in the early 2000s, boba does not hold the same meaning for Taiwanese people. Wei notes that boba in Taiwan is simply a delicious drink. “It doesn’t have the connotation of togetherness as it does in the U.S.,” says Wei.
In the U.S., Taiwanese immigrants opened the first boba shops in the 1990s. Not long after, chains like Lollicup, Tapioca Express, and Quickly popularized the drink in the mainstream alongside small mom-and-pop shops. At the time, affordability was more important than quality. The cheapest boba from Quickly at the time cost just 89 cents a cup. Many of the ingredients for the boba drinks in the 1990s and early 2000s came from the same distributors, which meant ingredients were rarely different from shop to shop. These early boba shops served as an irreplaceable part of many Asian Americans’ childhoods, partly because the drinks were seen as a parent-approved alternative to coffee or alcohol. These establishments, with their Asian pop playlists and board games, became popular hang-out spots after school or sometimes into the evenings.
When boba first entered the American market, many business owners felt it was an easy venture to go into due to its relatively low barrier to entry. Drinks were made with sugary syrups, low-quality tea, and freeze-dried boba, all ingredients that don’t perish quickly and cost little to prepare. Most of the drinks at the time were made from powders that just had to be mixed with water. Today, many of the top boba shops tout more artisan preparations, focusing on higher-quality ingredients like tea leaves from Taiwan, matcha from Japan, and tapioca balls from Taiwan, among a long list of toppings and other ingredients sourced locally and globally. These ingredients help the more ambitious shops stand out from boba chain stores that favor higher-volume, lower-cost drinks that often use sweetness to mask the rich flavors of higher-quality tea leaves and fruits.
With the advent of social media, there are now boba shops that focus purely on aesthetics or higher-end ingredients, like ethically sourced tea leaves and fresh-cut fruits. Boba drinks at these places can easily start at $8 or more per cup. Popular high-end Asian chains that value branding, tea, and flavor quality are now starting to plant stores throughout the U.S.
There are even a handful of boba shops that hand-make their own boba on the premises or have patented boba “teapresso” machines that brew individual cups, grinding tea leaves like espresso beans and using high pressure and hot water to brew the tea to order. Boba is no longer limited to drinks either. Just like in Taiwan, the balls have become important ingredients in prepared desserts, like shaved ice bowls. Boba has become so mainstream that even Costco and Trader Joe’s sell varieties of boba mochi and frozen boba ice cream.
The marks of a quality boba shop
The perfect boba must have the right QQ. In Taiwanese, QQ is the untranslatable chewy texture, similar to the Italian concept of al dente. The perfect QQ-ness of boba all comes from its cooking and storage; the cook method, timing, straining, and temperature will all affect its final texture. The ideal QQ boba should be soft and gently warm on the exterior, chewy all the way through until the middle, which should be ever so slightly firm. When adding boba to a cold beverage and ice, the cold temperature of the liquid shocks the boba and stops the cooking process to give it its final texture. If the boba is overcooked, it will be too soft and dissolve in the mouth; if undercooked, then it will have too hard of center, giving it an almost rubbery feel.
Boba is very delicate. Jack Hsiao, who owns Latea with locations in Culver City as well as in Illinois and Indiana, also makes his own boba in-house. “There are so many factors that can alter or change the texture of boba. The flour mix for the boba, the cooking temperature, the holding time, and the water-to-boba ratio are all important factors,” he says. “Most of the time, boba hardens when cooking with too little water, cooking too fast, sitting in an iced drink for too long, or being held for too long.”
The most common tea leaves used at boba shops are black, green, and oolong tea. Despite their different flavor profiles and aroma, they all come from the same plant — camellia sinensis. The oxidation process sets each kind of leaf apart. Of the three kinds, black tea is the most oxidized and contains the most caffeine. Green tea is the least oxidized, while oolong is somewhere in the middle. Green tea is very refreshing and brightly earthy, tending to pair well with fresh fruit. With richer ingredients like almond, coconut, or taro, black tea or oolong pair better.
Milk tea styles
Taiwanese-style boba shops tend to use brown sugar, which brings out the earthy aroma of the boba. Hong Kong milk tea uses condensed milk for a slightly sweeter finish, and Taiwanese-style typically means they use milk or nondairy creamer. But recipes are not set in stone.
Types of milk
- Fresh milk: Many higher-end boba shops like Cha Bei Bei in Monrovia use fresh milk because of its richer texture. The high fat content in whole milk provides a nice creamy and soft mouthfeel for the boba.
- Nondairy creamer: Most boba shops use this because of the prevalence of lactose intolerance within the Asian population. While the nondairy creamer is less rounded than fresh milk, it allows more of the tea flavor to come through as well.
- Alternative milks: Soy and almond milk are quite common in shops, but coconut and oat are becoming more available. Boba drinkers are wanting more lactose-free options like oat milk, which tends to be sweeter than regular milk. Almond milk and coconut milk have a nutty taste, which pairs well with milk teas. Soy milk is a mild and creamy dairy-free option.
Yu notes that his products and recipes always include nondairy creamer and water, which allows boba shops to prepare dairy-free drinks that are just as creamy as milk-based beverages. However, fresh milk can be added with powder to give it a smoothie-like texture. This also saves money because a shop doesn’t have to keep fresh milk in stock.
How to order boba drinks
Choose a base: Typical bases incorporate green tea, black tea, milk, or fruit juice. Yu says traditionally black tea is used for milk teas and flavored teas. Milk tea is always shaken with ice to produce a frothy mouthfeel.
- Milk tea: Black, green, or oolong with the addition of either milk or milk powder (milk powder vs. fresh milk is explained in the next section)
- Fruit tea: Using fruit and water as the primary flavorings, though not necessarily juice
- Sugar base (aka brown sugar milk): A syrup laced into the cup, plus milk (usually fresh is preferred to powder)
Choose toppings: Boba toppings have evolved quite a bit since the early das. Besides from the typical boba pearls, here are some variants that are becoming more available in shops:
- Standard boba: The most popular boba is caramelized with brown sugar. Cha Bei Bei in Monrovia makes its own boba from a different base every day (i.e. taro, ube, or sweet potato).
- Mini boba: A smaller version of standard boba.
- Agar boba: An alternative to boba made of red seaweed that is popular in Asia. Agar is not only a good source of many important vitamins and minerals, but is also made up mostly of carbohydrates and no fat.
- Tea jelly: Rectangular or square jellies made from coconut meat or konjac jelly, which has high fiber content and many health benefits.
- Almond jelly: Jellies made of apricot kernel milk, agar, and sugar.
- Popping fruit boba: This explodes like Gushers in your mouth. The popping boba consists of water, sugar, fruit juice, calcium lactate, seaweed extract, malic acid, potassium sorbate, coloring, and fruit flavorings like mango, strawberry, peach, and cantaloupe. The main ingredient is the seaweed extract, which is considered to be the outer shell of the popping boba. The popping boba has an outer gel layer that is created in a process called spherification, where a chemical reaction occurs between calcium chloride and sodium alginate. The calcium chloride causes the sodium alginate to gel, forming a membrane around the juice.
- Grass jelly: Grass jelly is made by boiling a plant called Chinese mesona along with starch and potassium carbonate. It is mostly tasteless, with a slight hint of bitterness and the texture of jello, and contains less sugar than boba.
- Egg pudding: A sweet and smooth custard dessert made from a delicate mix of sugar, eggs, and milk. The topping pairs exceptionally well with a milk tea and tastes similar to flan.
- Adzuki beans: Red beans that go well with matcha drinks. They have a sweet, mild, and nutty taste, which make them a great addition to desserts.
- Drinkable mochi: Sunright Tea Studio is currently the only local boba store that offers a drinkable mochi topping, a soft layer of mochi that you can sip through a straw. It tastes sweet and melts away as it is mixed into the drink. As the drink cools, the mochi will naturally thicken up and become chewy like regular mochi.
- Cheese tea: This foam topping is made by combining powdered cheese and salt with whipping cream and milk to form a frothy layer on the top of a cup of cold tea.
Choose the sugar level: Typically, the choices range between full sugar (100 percent sugar), less sugar (75 percent sugar), half sugar, quarter sugar, or no sugar. Higher sugar levels can overpower a drink that has already been adjusted to what the majority of customers like. Some boba shops like Cha Bei Bei focus on using alternative organic sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, and agave nectar for boba drinkers who look for relatively healthier substitutes for sugar. Drinks that are too sweet tend to overpower the flavor of the drink. A good rule of thumb is to try out a new drink at 75 percent sugar.
Choose the ice level: Extra ice, regular ice, less ice, no ice. Boba superfan Nataraj Das, who is known for his meticulous boba record keeping through spreadsheets of all his boba purchases since 2020, prefers his boba with little ice.“Less ice theoretically means a little more drink. More bang for your buck and more tea flavor,” says Das. More ice, however, dilutes the drink, which is handy for those who feel that their drink is too sweet. Cha Bei Bei anticipates this problem and makes its ice cubes using milk tea so it never dilutes. With regard to tea strength and flavor, using more ice can help to mitigate the caffeine levels for those who do not enjoy stronger flavors.
The future of boba
Boba has become a constantly evolving art form that has taken the United States, and especially Los Angeles, by storm for more than three decades. Trends, which have in the past typically come from Asia to the U.S., as with butterfly pea or cheese foam, are now beginning to start here. Automation may be the next frontier, with companies like Bobacino creating a robot boba bar — with a six-axis robotic arm and automated taps — that will make customized boba to the masses. Others are intentionally slowing the process down, hand-making their own boba in-house. Boba drinkers can expect to see more patented boba “teapresso” machines and unexpected uses for milk tea, like making ice cubes that do not dilute.
“There will be more awareness on what bubble tea is made out of,” says Hsiao. “And I believe more business owners will be focusing on the quality of ingredients, and where they source it.”
Beyond the increasing innovation in the field, boba shops will continue to serve as cultural meeting places for the Asian American community and others. With the boba fandom still growing among different communities in the U.S. and in Los Angeles, the many ways to drink and enjoy milk teas will only keep expanding.