2009 Bubble tea goes mainstream

Taiwan milk tea with tapioca pearls. Image: Shutterstock

Not being a tea drinker, the world of specialty tea drinks is completely foreign to me. I grew up in an age when all the “cool” people were switching from tea (the standard English cuppa our parents drank) to coffee.  Now it’s the other way around. Of three daughters, two drink tea, never coffee. And today, the cool young people enjoy a range of tea drinks unheard of by my parents’ generation. There are fruit teas, tea lattes, frozen chocolate teas, and even cookies and cream teas – many of which began with, or are variations on, bubble tea.

Bubble tea began in Taiwan in the 1980s when tapioca “pearls” were added to tea drinks that were shaken to produce a frothy surface. The name, strictly speaking, refers to the air bubbles on top but the chewy “bubbles” at the bottom have become the feature of these increasingly popular drinks. From Taiwan, the bubble tea phenomenon spread worldwide, including to Australia where, initially, its popularity was largely with people of Asian origin.

Among the first to bring bubble tea to Australia was a company called Easyway, founded in Taiwan in 1992. Easyway (subsequently re-named Epic Tea) had outlets at some Australian universities where they could capitalise on the growing number of international students. According to the blog of a bubble tea enthusiast, these early operators used tea powder, producing tea-flavoured drinks rather than actual tea. The blogger refers to the period from c1994 to 2009 as “The Dark Ages” of bubble tea in this country.

Things began to improve with the arrival of more big international chains, the first of which was Chatime. The brand, founded in 2005 in Taiwan, opened its first Australian store in 2009 and was followed, in 2012, by Gong Cha. The teas offered by these chains were freshly brewed from actual tea leaves rather than powder. Their arrival signalled a recognition that bubble tea was no longer a niche product but had a wider future in Australia.

By 2017, business was booming. Now there are dozens of franchised chains and independent stores selling concoctions such as Mango Madness, Pop It Like It’s Peach, Red Bean Ice Blend or Wintermelon Latte. Toppings include cheese foam, crushed cookies or cubes of grass jelly (a Chinese jelly with a herbal flavour). The distinctive bubbles, or boba, can be chewy tapioca or flavoured agar agar ones that pop. And, of course, a fat straw is obligatory to suck up the bubbles.

It remains to be seen whether bubble tea is a transient phenomenon or will become a permanent part of the Australian food and drink scene. According to at least one fan, these sweet drinks are here to stay.

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