BUBBLE TEA, a beverage made with tea, milk, sugar, and tapioca pearls, is well-known as the “nation’s favorite drink” in Taiwan. After Gongcha’s foray into the Korean market in 2012, Koreans also became familiar with the drink. People later started to enjoy bubble tea from the original flavor to new flavors, such as the black sugar bubble tea. A cup of bubble tea holds an interesting story of development and expansion.
Reasons to love bubble tea
“Bubble tea is like gum. It’s fun to munch on,” said Jeong Ye-eun (Sr., UIC, Sustainable Development and Cooperation) in an interview with The Yonsei Annals. More than just a piece of gum, bubble tea is a full package of chewy, refreshing delight. Fresh milk and aromatic tea mixed in a cup full of ice makes the drink a perfect treat to quench your thirst. Then the pearls that you suck from a big fat straw give you a pleasant surprise. Sweet, gummy pearls add another note of flavor that makes the concoction more enticing.
Although some people find the texture of tapioca pearls repulsive, most Koreans did not have a problem with trying out bubble tea because they were used to the rice cake-like consistency. Koreans are also familiar with putting toppings like sweet cooked rice (in sik-hye*) and nata de coco (coconut jelly) in their drinks. According to Byon Young-woo (Sr., Dept. of Economics), those who like bubble tea appreciate the chewy pearls because they make the drinking experience more enjoyable. The pearls make bubble tea a filling snack.
Where it all began
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan as early as the 1980s**. Local people refer to the drink as zhen zhu nai cha because the tapioca balls look like pearls (zhen-zhu in Chinese) sitting at the bottom of the milk tea (nai-cha). Bubble tea comes in many different flavors. The classic version of the drink is black tea or green tea-based milk tea. Variants that fall under this category include: Earl Grey milk tea, oolong milk tea, and jasmine green milk tea. People also like taro bubble tea, which tastes like the sweet, creamy taro root.
More recently, Taiwanese people began to add tapioca pearls to their fruit tea, smoothies, chocolate milkshakes, and many other drinks you can think of. People can choose between the small pearls, zhen-zhu, or the big pearls called bo-ba***. Such terms are used to differentiate the size of tapioca pearls, but globally, boba is often used interchangeably with tapioca and tapioca pearls. Bo-ba is also a Taiwanese slang for “large breasts,” and it is told that the term was first used by one tea shop owner in an attempt to make his bubble tea stand out with a provocative name****. Aside from adding toppings like tapioca pearls, pudding, aiyu jelly*****, or coconut jelly, people can adjust the amount of ice and sweetness for their cup of bubble tea.
According to the Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs, there are more than 21,000 bubble tea stores in Taiwan. Founded in 1983, teahouse and restaurant Chun-shui-tang claims to have created bubble tea. The brand now has more than 40 stores in Taiwan and is known for serving the traditional “tea-based” zhen zhu nai cha along with Ten Ren Tea (Taiwan’s largest teahouse). Another famous bubble tea brand is CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice (abbreviated as CoCo) with approximately 3,500 locations within and outside Taiwan. You can easily spot Coco stalls in Taiwan as frequently as you can see Starbucks stores in Korea.
Gongcha and bubble tea in Korea
Gongcha, the most prominent bubble tea franchise in Korea, was founded in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Gongcha Korea’s first store opened in the Hongdae****** area in 2012. The brand grew exponentially and introduced bubble tea to more people. Today, Koreans can order bubble tea at most of their local cafes because the drink has become a “steady seller” with loyal buyers. Major Korean coffee franchises like Ediya Coffee and Holly’s Coffee have also adopted bubble tea menus.
Bubble tea has become a popular alternative for those who do not relate to Korea’s coffee culture. A cup of bubble tea energizes people with its sweetness and a kick of caffeine. The dose is just enough to invigorate you but not to the point of making your heart pound and giving you a headache. According to Caffeine Informer, a website that compiles information about the amount of caffeine in a wide range of products, a 16-ounce Grande size brewed coffee at Starbucks contains 330mg of caffeine whereas the same size bubble tea contains 153.8mg of caffeine on average.
The Korean bubble tea market has been flourishing recently, and more bubble tea brands other than Gongcha have opened in different neighborhoods. Founded in Busan, Amasvin has been around since 2008. It is the second largest Korean brand that specializes in bubble tea. Other domestic bubble tea chains include Hoicha and Heuk-hwa-dang, both of which sell black sugar bubble tea as their main product.
A sweet evolution
The second wave of the bubble tea trend began, of course, in Taiwan. Chen-san-ding, the so-called “birthplace of black sugar bubble tea,” named their drink as hei tang qing wa zhuang nai because of the saying that tapioca pearls resemble frog’s eggs. Black sugar bubble tea (or brown sugar bubble tea) is more commonly known as hei tang zhen zhu xian nai because fresh milk (xian-nai) was used instead of milk tea. New bubble tea brands such as Tiger Sugar, The Alley, Zhen-zhu-dan, and Xing-fu-tang emerged in response to people’s interest in the drink.
Black sugar bubble tea craze in Korea began with Tiger Sugar’s buzz on social media. The black sugar syrup, which is used to soak the tapioca pearls, creates a tiger stripe pattern on the cup. Pictures of Tiger Sugar’s unique-looking signature menu went viral among Koreans last summer, and people lined up to try out the exotic drink despite the hot weather. Soon after, duplicate brands appeared, and existing brands introduced new drinks inspired by black sugar. Explosive demand for black sugar bubble tea and related products made bubble tea more accessible to Koreans.
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Today, even cafeterias in Korean universities sell zhen zhu nai cha and hei tang zhen zhu xian nai so that students can chew on tapioca pearls during and in between classes. Bubble tea entered the Korean market when other foreign food items like the Taiwanese castella******** was trending as well. However, unlike other food and beverages that come and go, bubble tea seems to have secured its spot on the menu. In the words of a bubble tea enthusiast, “There is nothing that can replace bubble tea.”
*Sik-hye: Sweet Korean rice drink made with malted barley, water, sugar, and rice.
**South China Morning Post
***Bo-ba: Round, chewy balls in bubble tea made from tapioca starch.
****Los Angeles Times
*****Aiyu jelly: Taiwanese jelly that is often served with lemon-honey syrup.
******Hong-dae: Hongik University and its surroundings.
*******Taiwanese castella: Sponge cake typically made with flour, sugar, and eggs.