Bubble Tea

Author: Luo Yingyin Photos: Editorial Department

Consider a single image that signifies Taiwan to people from other countries, What kind of picture could it be? Does such an image exist? In terms of people, perhaps we think of Chien-Ming Wang (the Yankees player). Buildings: We think of Tainana’s Chihkan Tower. Industry: Notebook computers. Drinks: That must be bubble tea!

Pour hot tea over ice. Add non-dairy creamer and mix in tapioca balls. Next, pour in flavoring syrup. Shake it up and down and from side to side, and then pour the mixture into a cup. In Taiwan, we call it “bubble tea.” In the scorching hot southern summers, a cool, refreshing cup of bubble tea melts away the summer heat.

Pearl milk tea is the result of combining Taiwan’s unique snack food, tapioca balls, with milk tea, resulting in a beverage that can not only be drunk, but can also be chewed. It is both thirst-quenching and filling. Over the course of the past twenty some years, it has become a drink enjoyed throughout Taiwan.

In addition to changing the tea drinking habits of the Taiwanese people, this beverage has won over the majority of Taiwanese people’s taste buds. It comforts homesick Taiwanese exchange students and has reestablished Taiwan’s market for cold beverages, creating limitless Taiwanese business opportunities,

Landis CEO Yan Changs shou, in his book, emphasizes Taiwanese culture as the most important sales and marketing tool we have. If we wish to see Taiwan step onto the world stage, we must integrate the best of our cuisine, art, and culture. Blending traditional with international and local culture will be important marketing components. He gives as an example Taiwan’s well – known bubble tea. It lacks the strictness of the Japanese tea ceremony. It is also unlike the habit in Hong Kong of drinking tea by Glass Tea Cups every morning with dim sum. When other countries drink tea they follow a set pattern, which is unlikely to change significantly. Taiwanese people, however, arc somewhat more relaxed in their tea drinking. Consequently, they have, as Yan Says, taken the taste experience of drinking tea to an even higher level.”

In reality, Taiwanese culture has numerous strengths. But how can we bring this culture to the world stage? That requires international – class marketing talent. Yan Chang shou also says that Taiwan has transformed its tea tradition into a teahouse that can appeal to modem youth. It has turned the traditional tea ceremony into bubble tea and foam milk tea. If Taiwanese bubble tea were well marketed and its value increased, it just might replace coffee as the world’s largest beverage chain.

Bubble tea is the most successful popular product of creative Taiwanese culture. It is loved by people ranging in age from seven to seventy. It has been strongly linked with Taiwanese tea drinking culture since the mid 1980’s. According to statistics gathered by the Consumer’s Foundation, 28% of consumers drink at least one cup per week at a teashop, while 16% drink a cup every day. The existence of this large market has driven the growth of other related industries in Taiwan. The constant demand for high fructose syrups has also created new business opportunities.

Thanks to bubble tea, cup-sealing machines have been developed. It has also given a significant boost to Taiwan’s shipping industry. Also because of bubble tea, Taiwan’s tea Industry has changed enormously.

“Foam black tea” began in 1949 at Tainan’s Shuangquan Black Tea Shop. People in Tainan have been enjoying black tea from this shop for over half a century, which to this day still uses only black tea grown in Taiwan. Throughout the mid and late 1980’s, tea enthusiasts throughout Taiwan opened teahouses and popularized the craft of tea drinking. Taiwan foam black tea really began to take off. Also at that time, lightly fermented Taiwanese tea began to be consumed as a cold beverage, beginning a diversification of tea drinking culture. Tainan Historical Society member Zheng Daocong said he assisted in the opening of nearly one hundred foam milk teashops, an indication of the explosive development of the market.

The teas then used in cold drink shops nearly all came from Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake area (Yuchi black tea), as well as Oolong tea from Mingjian Township, Nantou County. That time was also a period of rapid growth in Taiwanese tea production. From Dongding tea to the just developed Gaoshan tea, a flourishing scene began thanks to the varied tastes of tea enthusiasts.

Taiwan’s economic boom brought the rapid expansion of cold tea drink shops. This combined with the large-scale trend towards bottled drinks brought tremendous growth to the market for mid and low priced Taiwanese teas. This brought about gradual changes in the makeup of the Taiwanese tea growing industry. According to customs records, 768 metric tons of tea was imported in 1986. By 1993, this figure had reached 9928 metric tons. In 1991, the quantity of tea imported officially exceeded exports. By 2002, imports had further grown to 17,200 metric tons. The majority of this exponential growth in imports came about in order to satisfy the demands of tens of thousands of cold drink shops.

The greatest factor in Taiwan’s transformation from a net tea exporter to an importer is the tea bars that have spread to every back alley in the country. The mainstay of these shops’ business for the past twenty years has been bubble tea. In addition to the tea that forms the base, the essence of bubble tea lies in its “pearls” (tapioca balls). These were originally made from local sweet potato powder, but due to large-scale cost issues, imported cassava powder or other starches have gradually become dominant.

After importation into Taiwan, they undergo further processing and are formed into round balls. The essence of bubble tea’s flavor, fructose syrup, is made using locally processed imported corn starch. In addition, the raw materials for the paper cups and straws are also imported.

Taiwanese bubble tea is an example of a home-grown cultural industry that has managed to step onto the world stage, creating a Taiwanese industry. The raw materials, however, are nearly all imported. Looking at this from the perspective of “internationalization,” bubble tea has brought a different kind of international industrial culture to Taiwan.

Why was bubble tea able to spread throughout Taiwan? Why was it able to create its own different kind of cultural industry? How was bubble tea able to become a common element in Taiwanese lifestyle? Taiwan’s subtropical climate makes it well – suited for drinking cold beverages using glass tea sets, providing a platform for the development of bubble tea. Taiwan is also an island, which facilitates import and export, providing the raw materials needed for bubble tea. Furthermore, Taiwanese society tends to be open and creative, allowing for the development of new methods of drinking such as that of bubble tea. Taiwan has a history of colonization and of accommodating different ideas, providing a foundation for the growth of bubble tea.

It is often said that the English drink their tea with milk. This not only refers to a drink. It also symbolizes a frame of mind. The image of “a cup of black tea” has a more profound meaning, representing the warmth of home. We know that black tea originated in China, but this image as well as numerous drinking techniques can only be found in the West.

Taiwanese bubble tea borrows upon our fascination with English tea with milk and adds tapioca balls local to Taiwan. The result is a multi-layered new tea drinking culture. The image of “a cup of Taiwanese bubble tea” has even more profound meaning. It represents the spirit of the Taiwanese people. The next time we present an image of Taiwan to people from other countries, Chien-Ming Wang can represent our people, but our drinks should be represented by bubble tea.


Bubble tea originated from foam black tea. According to Tainan Historical Society member Zhen Daocong, the earliest foam black tea was the hand-shaken black tea served in Tainan’s Tianma Teahouse beginning in 1949. Later, the technique was transferred to the still existing Shuangquan Black Tea Teahouse. Tea was shaken and powdered there for half a century. This could be called the big sister of the foam black teashop. The only difference is the name.

Opinions differ regarding the origin of bubble tea. Some say it began in Taichung, while others say it was created in Tainan. Regardless of which story is correct, they clearly agree that the inspiration comes from traditional food markets. During the mid to late 1980’s it was discovered that adding the traditional Taiwanese snack ” tapioca balls” to milk tea could both relieve thirst and alleviate hunger during the sweltering summers of central and southern Taiwan.

The act of drinking a cold beverage was transformed into eating or chewing something solid. From the moment it was presented to the public, a stream of people lined up to try it. Older people wanted to see how the tapioca balls they had grown up eating could be “drunk.” Younger people wanted to experience western style milk tea mixed with this traditional Taiwanese snack. Entrepreneurs vied to imitate and spread this newly created non-traditional way of drinking tea, creating limitless business opportunities for new tea drink shops.


The attraction of bubble tea was able to cover all of Taiwan and spread throughout the world. This has primarily been due to several critical points, which aided its power to expand.

Fructose syrup replaced reduced fruit syrups:

It is said that in 1985 when Shin Sheng Daily News celebrated its 40th anniversary, they invited the Chinese Art of Tea Craft Union to prepare iced tea to serve the invited guests. The drinks were very well received, and the syrup they had cooked down was insufficient. Zheng Daocong hurriedly came up with the idea to use fructose syrup instead. Surprisingly, the flavor was outstanding. Because fructose syrup has no aroma and only sweetness,the fragrance of the scented tea was especially prominent. Afterwards, nearly all cold drink shops switched to using fructose syrup, ensuring uniform level of quality among cold teas and establishing a foundation for the development of foam black tea shops.

Development of large straws: At first bubble tea was not drank through straws, but rather eaten with a teaspoon. This changed in 1988 when Taiwan’s Rich Disposable Cup factory widened their straws to 8mm in diameter. From that point on, bubble tea changed to the use of straws, which altered the way it was consumed. This made it more convenient as a carryout item, facilitating bubble tea’s popularity and large-scale growth.

The name “Boba”: In Taipei, bubble tea is primarily known by the name Boba tea. Only when the 50 Lan franchise expanded to Taipei did it add Tainan’s pearls (tapioca balls the Chinese name for bubble tea is literally “pearl milk tea ) to the product name. Only at this time did northern Taiwanese begin to distinguish the pearls into two different types with differing names- The actual origin of the word, “boba” came from a cold drink shop called Cao Meng on Tainan’s Hai’an Road. At that time, the Hong Kong actress Amy Yip was popular, and, in a flash of inspiration, tea made from large tapioca balls was playfully named Boba milk tea (the term “boba” is slang used to describe actresses who have large breasts). This propelled bubble tea to new peaks. It also gave a new name to bubble tea, adding more weight to its fame. Although Hong Kong’s X-rated film industry has declined, boba tea has become a mainstay product of foam black teashops,

Development of cup sealing machine: In 1992, Easy Way, located near Taichung’s Donghai University, took the lead in using an automatic cup sealing machine to replace traditional lids. This resulted in a sealed beverage that could be taken away without fear of leakage. This type of convenient packaging appealed to the consumer habits of Taiwanese and drove the popularity of carry out cold drinks. It also helped Easy Way, originally a small roadside shop, begin selling franchise rights in 1997, and within two years open 300 shops throughout Taiwan. In mainland China and other places, there are some who believe the biggest distinguishing feature of bubble tea is the use of automatic cup sealing machines.

The rise of franchises: Starting over twenty years ago with Nt $10(~US $0.30) cups of foam black and jasmine green tea, cold drink shops began to spread throughout urban areas. Especially in the cities of Taichung and Tainan, drink shops were everywhere from night markets to school campuses, and on every street and alley. The experience running these shops established the technologies for making bubble tea.

Cold drink shops saw the success of franchises in Taiwan such as 7-11 convenience stores as a model to be copied. In the space of a decade, a succession of tea bar franchises sprung up. They focused on the tenants of franchising, including simplification, standardization, and specialization. Familiar chains of tea bars include Ching Shin, 50 Lan, Shiny Tea, Tea Serving, Easy Way, and Share Tea.


Bubble teashops have already replaced foam milk teashops in Taiwan, becoming the generic term for cold tea drink shops. Bubble tea also broke the long held tea drinking habits of the Taiwanese people, adding an act of chewing solid objects to these drinks. This development can be attributed to Taiwan’s multifaceted culture. Local tapioca balls, Western creamer, and Eastern tea are shaken together in the same style used to make alcoholic cocktails. Various kinds of drinking cultures are combined, creating a drink that matches Taiwanese culture.

Raw materials:

The “bubbles” in bubble tea refer to tapioca balls. These were traditionally produced by adding water to sweet potato powder, mixing and kneading until uniform. Next they were shaken, causing the little, round, pearl-like balls to take form. In order to preserve and improve the flavor, browned syrup made from granulated sugar was usually added. This is the reason that tapioca balls could be made from white sweet potato powder but take on a dark brown color.

Tapioca balls play a leading role in bubble tea, but black tea also plays a very important part. Many businesses have also promoted green bubble tea or Oolong bubble tea, but strictly speaking black tea is more “accommodating” than other kinds of tea.

Because it is completely fermented tea, the majority of polyphenols have been oxidized into theaflavins and thearubigins, resulting in a strong and sweet flavor with a deep fragrance. The flavor comes through regardless of whether it is consumed cold or hot, or mixed with distinctively flavored additives. An example is the English tea with milk. An iced cup of bubble tea is extremely refreshing during the summer. During the winter, a hot cup of bubble tea provides a different type of comfort.

Customized choices:

In Taiwan, bubble tea shops usually sell mix-and-match. The underlying base is generally black tea, although some shops also offer green tea (usually called bubble green tea or bubble milk green). They may also offer “pearls” as a choice, which can be added to any beverage. Tapioca balls are offered as an additive to shaved ice, beancurd, and grass jelly drinks. Additionally, shopkeepers may also concoct special mixed drinks to represent their shops, even selling drinks created by frequent customers.

Basic tea types : black tea, green tea, Oolong tea, Pu-erh tea, chrysanthemum tea, etc.

Flavorings : yogurt, honey, plum juice, mulberry juice, lemon juice, star fruit juice, mango juice, cocoa, etc.

Add-ins : pearls or Boba (tapioca balls), pudding, red beans, coconut, grass jelly, konjak.

Extra choices : Sweetness – this is provided by fructose syrup, but each shop and each person making the drinks will be slightly different. Unless specially requested, a basic level of sweetness is added. Options include: half sweetness, less sweet, minimal sweetness, and unsweetened. Ice can also be chosen: completely iced, less ice, and no ice.

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