It’s Quali-tea: How Boba Became a Craze

Chewy tea. Once upon a time, it would have been a weird concept. Today, however, it’s nothing short of a phenomenon. It goes by many different names. Boba. Pearl Milk Tea. Bubble Tea. But no matter what you call it, this sweet, delectable drink has, since its creation, captured the hearts and stomachs of people all across the world.

Bubble Tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s in the Chun Shui Tang teahouse. As its origin story goes, the owner, Liu Han-Chieh, was inspired to serve cold tea after seeing iced coffee in Japan. One day, his product development manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, decided to pour a dessert called fen yuan that she had with her into the drink—and thus, bubble tea as we know it was born.

Since then, bubble tea has become a major hit. In America, the drink has been around for longer than you probably think: it first migrated to the west coast of America in the 1990s, where it quickly became a fad. The trend began in Taiwanese immigrant communities, and became a part of Taiwanese-American culture: as stated by journalist Clarissa Wei in a blog post, “As a Taiwanese-American kid growing up in the early 2000s in the San Gabriel Valley, the concoction was an integral part of my social life.”

Instead of fading out or just staying within the Taiwanese-American community (or even just Asian-American communities in general), however, the fad continued to spread across America. It’s now more popular than ever; indeed, the compound annual growth rate of the bubble tea market from 2017-2023 is estimated to be 7.3%. So how did bubble tea—this chewy, strange, and foreign drink—become so successful? And how has it maintained its popularity for almost 30 years?

There are a few reasons, but mainly it boils down to this: bubble tea has the incredible power of change. Sure, bubble tea at one point was new and interesting, but what happens after the original novelty wears off? Bubble tea, in order to keep up with changing aesthetics and interests, has changed as well.

The versatility of bubble tea as a product lends itself to innovation. As boba became more popular, new flavors were introduced (like fruit boba) along with new toppings (like grass jelly, almond jelly, egg pudding, and red beans). Sellers of bubble tea have a lot of wiggle room in deeming things “bubble tea,” as in reality these new drinks have strayed far away from the original concoction brewed up by Liu Han-Chieh and Lin Hsiu Hui. However, this very newness and differences between types of “bubble tea” keep customers coming.

In recent years, too, bubble tea, or ‘boba,’ has been able to expand beyond the Asian American community. As the first wave of the bubble tea craze was starting to die down, new boba trends started to emerge; it was Americanized. New bubble tea sellers opened that marketed their teas to customers who frequented coffee shops. New flavors started coming out. For example, Boba Guys, a wildly successful bubble tea store, now sells cross-cultural bubble tea drinks such as ‘dirty horchata.’ Bubble tea also started taking new shapes: for example, you can now buy it in ice cream form. It is a far cry today from its origins in Taiwan.

Boba has slowly changed and shifted its way from one drink in a tiny store in Taiwan to a global food trend. Only because of its ability to change and adapt into new environments has bubble tea become the phenomenon it is today.

Sources: LA Weekly, Quartz, The New York Times, Digital Journal, CNN, NPR, Imbibe Magazine, Food and Wine