Bubble Tea Basics
What is bubble tea?
Many people think that the word “bubble” in bubble refers to the chewy tapioca pearls that often come in it, but that’s not the case! Bubble tea is actually includes a range of drinks that are made with tea shaken with ice in order to create frothy bubbles in it. Bubble tea comes in all sorts of flavors, from classic pearl milk tea to simple iced tea to fruity concoctions. In Taiwan, bubble tea in general is called shǒu yáo bēi 手搖杯 (simplified: 手摇杯). This name translates to “hand-shaken drinks,” as bubble tea was originally shaken by hand, although many shops use machines nowadays.
Where is bubble tea from?
Taiwan is known as the capital of bubble tea, and it’s said to be where the drink originated. There is some debate about who first invented bubble tea, but many people believe that it was the famous bubble tea store Chūn Shuǐ Táng (春水堂). According to the brand’s founder, he began serving cold tea in the 1980s after seeing Japanese cafes serving cold coffee. One day, Chūn Shuǐ Táng’s development manager decided to add some tapioca balls (which were a common dessert) into her iced tea. The drink was a hit at the meeting, so they decided to put it on the menu. Soon, it was outselling all their other iced teas. After that, bubble tea’s popularity exploded, and it has since become an iconic Taiwanese drink.
Today, bubble tea is a favorite among locals and tourists alike in Taiwan. During the scorching hot summer, you’ll constantly see people with a cold tea in their hand or hanging off the handlebar of their scooter. Even in the office, people often order bubble tea rather than coffee as an afternoon pick-me-up. With bubble tea being such an important part of Taiwanese culture, it’s truly a must-try for anyone who visits.
Basic Types of Tea
Learning the basic tea types will help you make sense of bubble tea menus. These tea types are often combined with fruit, milk, or other flavors.
Bubble Tea Toppings:
Many drinks already include toppings such as tapioca pearls, but you can also add toppings to your drink for an extra cost. Below are a few of the most common add-ins found on bubble tea menus.
What to Order & Where
If you’re new to the bubble tea world, you might not know where to start. New bubble tea chains seem to pop up every day, and they all offer a different mix of menu options. Below are a few drink suggestions and some places you can try them!
Pearl Milk Tea – 珍珠奶茶 zhēnzhūnǎichá
Ah, good ole’ pearl milk tea! Simple, classic, and satisfying. This is what most people think of when bubble tea is mentioned, and what I’d recommend for anyone who hasn’t tried bubble tea before. If you want to try the best-of-the-best, head to the famous Chūn Shuǐ Táng (春水堂). For something more affordable, I recommend 50 Lán (五十嵐). I like that it offers a choice of regular sized or small pearls (or a mix of both) which provides a fun change of texture.
Brown Sugar Pearls – 黑糖珍珠 hēitáng zhēnzhū
For a twist on classic boba, try brown sugar pearls. These pearls are cooked in brown sugar to give them a rich, sweet taste and are often added to fresh milk rather than milk tea. One chain that specializes in brown sugar boba is Tiger Sugar (老虎堂 Lǎohǔ Táng). To try their Brown Sugar Pearls in Milk, ask for 波霸鮮奶 (波霸鲜奶) bōbà xiān nǎi.
Fruit Tea – 水果茶 shuǐguǒ chá
Fruit tea can be a refreshing choice on a hot summer day. The most famous shop for fruit tea is probably Yìfāng (一芳), which offers a Signature Fruit Tea which features chunks of mixed fresh fruits. To order it, ask for 招牌水果茶zhāopái shuǐguǒ chá. Other common fruit drinks include Passion Fruit Green Tea (百香綠茶 / 百香绿茶/ bǎixiāng lǜchá) and Grapefruit Green Tea (葡萄柚綠茶 / 葡萄柚绿茶 / pútáoyòu lǜchá).
Taro – 芋頭 (芋头) yùtou
Taro is a classic flavor that has been around since the 1980s. It’s known for its purple color, rich flavor, and thick texture. Many shops offer drinks with taro, including CoCo. Try the taro milk tea (芋頭奶茶 / 芋头奶茶/ yùtóu nǎichá) or the taro with milk (芋頭牛奶 / 芋头牛奶 / yùtóu niúnǎi).