Boba is more than a quarter century old and its position as a worldwide tea phenomenon is well and truly cemented. Yet the year 2017 saw the popularity of the tea-based, fruity milk drink explode—particularly in the West—with dedicated boba stores reporting booming business in cities large and small.
Originally a staple of the night markets of Taiwan, boba, or “bubble tea,” has become synonymous with café culture, and in a fun and instantly gratifying way. Kids, hipsters, health-conscious millennials, students … there’s something for everyone in this colorful sweet nectar of the Asian masses.
Though originally based on black or green tea, to which tapioca balls, fruit jelly, milk and fruit flavors were added, many variants are now a far cry from the drink’s healthy tea origins. In fact, with such high sugar content, some even come with a health warning; and dumbed down concoctions, based not on tea but on corn syrup and artificial flavorings and colors, have at best confused and at worst distanced many consumers.
But lately, cultural centers such as New York, San Francisco and Southern California have witnessed a return to the essence of boba and a boom in upscale boba stores. San Francisco’s Boba Guys and New York’s Kung Fu Tea, a popular franchise that now boasts more than 150 stores nationwide and is expanding internationally, are notable examples. Niche stores such as these are focusing on the healthier end of the market, basing their offerings on black, green and oolong teas, and experimenting with variants such as slushies, tea/coffee blends, matcha and seasonal blends. At Boba Guys, syrups are made in-house, milk is organic and tea sourced from “finest tea purveyors.”
Elsewhere, bubble tea mash-ups are trending, where inspiration for flavors come from other cuisines such as hibiscus flowers from Mexico; saffron, cardamom and condensed milk for an Indian flavor; and rosewater for Persian flavored bubble tea. At New York City’s Bar Pa Tea, the menu of healthy tea offerings with fresh-squeezed juice recently expanded to include black tea or oolong flavored soft-serve with tapioca balls and ice cream, pretzels and cookie toppings.
Regardless of whether it’s considered tea or not, boba has proven itself to be a retail success and at the close of 2017 is truly established, popular and extremely profitable.