What’s The Fuss About Bubble Tea?

Bubble tea stores have mushroomed all around Australia over the last few years. Melbourne’s Swanston Street in the CBD is peppered with bubble tea franchises such as ChaTime, EasyWay and Gong Cha. Whenever I pass by these stores, I often see hordes of people, mostly Asians, queuing up here and waiting for their drinks.

Tons of my Australia-based and international student friends from Malaysia and Singapore are absolutely ga-ga over bubble tea and consume it at least once a week.

Coconut milk tea with pearls. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Coconut milk tea with pearls. Photo: Mabel Kwong

So just what is the fuss about bubble tea? Why is it so popular, especially among the Asian crowd not just in Australia, but in Western countries in general?

Bubble tea is a drink that contains milk or tea, or both. Originating from Taiwan, bubble tea can either be milk-based or tea-based – that is a drink consisting either of milk and tea or just tea. Flavours and syrups are often added along with condiments such as the ever popular tapioca pearls (black chewy jelly-like balls also known as boba) and bite-sized pieces of jelly. Most stores have “sweetness level” options where customers can choose how sweet they want their bubble tea drink to taste.

Bubble tea is a rather filling sweet beverage and this is what arguably makes it appealing to many of Asian ethnicity. Desserts and sweet treats/drinks are all the rage in Asia. For instance, sweet dessert cakes kuih muih made of rice or tapioca flour and pink rose-cordial drink bandung are immensely popular with all races in Malaysia and Indonesia. In South-East Asia, tangyuan or glutinous rice balls floating in ginger-sugar syrup and sugar-infested cincau or grass jelly soy-milk beverages are much loved among the Chinese. As a saccharinely sweet drink created in Taiwan, bubble tea is naturally another option to satisfy the Asian sweet tooth.

Secondly, this popular drink is relatively easy to make, making it even more popular with Asians. All bubble tea makers need to do is mix milk and/or tea with flavoured powdered in a blender and serve it to customers in a heat-sealed cup – which only takes five minutes tops.

And which Asian person does not like a quick fix meal or drink when they are hungry or thirsty? Fast-preparing hawker fare is sought after by many in Asia from dusk to dawn. Bubble tea is in the same league as hawker-style fry-ups, albeit in drink form: easy to prepare and casual enough to consume any time of the day.

Thirdly, there has always been a strong “milk-and-tea culture” in Asia, and this can definitely explain why bubble tea is a hit among many Asians. (Condensed) milk combined with tea and vice-versa drinks are often drunk by many Asians especially for breakfast and in South-East Asian coffee shops. For instance, teh oh (sweetened tea without milk) and teh si (tea with evaporated milk and sugar) are staples for breakfast and morning tea for both young and old Asians. These are traditional milk-tea drinks that have been around for decades, and bubble tea can be seen as the modern variant of much savoured milk-tea beverages.

In addition, more and more bubble tea stores are placing tables and chairs inside or outside their stores, most likely to entice bubble tea fanatics to sit and have a chat over their favourite taro milk teas or pearl milk teas. Many Asians love getting together and chatting – collective membership and togetherness is extremely valued in Asian cultures. It only apt this group warms towards gathering and relaxing over some bubble tea in cozy ambiances at bubble tea cafes.

Many Asians queuing outside Swanston Street's Gong Cha. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Many Asians queuing outside Swanston Street’s Gong Cha. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Interestingly enough, Caucasian Australians do not seem to take a liking towards bubble tea and see it as a foreign beverage, at least those whom I have spoken to. I have heard many of them express puzzlement and ridicule the “sweetness level” for bubble tea drinks. I have also heard a number of them express their disgust towards tapioca balls. Perhaps bubble tea and their funky flavours and condiments are simply too adventurous for the typically bland Western palate, explaining this hostility.

So, when will we in Australia get tired of drinking bubble tea? As mentioned, bubble tea appeals to a niche market in Australia, specifically Asian-Australians and international students from Asia. The proportion of Asians born in Australia have increased significantly over the past decade. 80% of international students are from Asia and this is expected to increase in the coming years.

Recently over the Easter long-weekend holiday, a time when many Caucasian Australians were out of town, I took a stroll down Melbourne’s city. Lo and behold many bubble tea stores open and I saw many Asian people – Asians who love heading out on public holidays – lining up patiently to place their orders.

Bubble tea shops are indeed catering to their Asian customers who in turn are lapping up the popular drink all year round.

So perhaps bubble tea will prove popular for at least a little while longer Down Under.

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24 thoughts on “What’s The Fuss About Bubble Tea?

  1. I like bubble tea, but probably wouldn’t buy it if meeting friends. I’d go for a coffee because I associate sipping a bit more debonaire than sucking through a straw.

    For me, a bigger cultural question is why have karaoke boxes found immense popularity all over Asia but in Australia it is mainly only Asians or those of Asian descent, who enjoy them?

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    • More debonaire than sucking through a straw? I guess so, sipping from a cup is definitely more sophisticated. But for me, it’s always fun trying to suck up the last of the jellies through the straw in a bubble tea!

      In Asia, I’ve always noticed that it is mainly Asians who enjoy karaoke, so I’m not too sure what you’re getting at. I’ve never really heard of Caucasians going out to karaoke in big groups. I wonder why.

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      • Fun is an interesting point. The design of that cup is fun. You probably wouldn’t find a coffee brand nor would you find a coffee cup given a fun image.

        When Iived in Japan, I noticed the Japanese were really into having fun. They have a word ‘kawaii’ which means cut and men and women spend a lot of time trying to be kawaii or appreciating kawaii things. China doesn’t seem to have the same kawaii culture as Japan, but I’d say that being cute and fun is still more fashionable than Australia.

        I just mentioned karaoke because it was another cultural past time that I found a point of difference between Australia and Asia. (In Japan I went to karaoke boxes with Caucasians. Very good fun. In Australia, I have never been able to get Caucasians interested in going to karaoke boxes.)

        In China, I noticed that when people went out, often they didn’t talk. They would go to karaoke, play a game with dice and the men would get really really drunk. Even intellectuals would drink like 16-year-old Australians by just pouring glasses of baijui and then bottoms up. I thought that maybe contributed to the popularity of karaoke because it is an excuse not to talk.

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        • Very interesting that there are quite a number of Caucasians in Asia who like going to karaoke boxes. Perhaps they are the kinds of Caucasians who take a much fancy towards Asian cultures and all things kawaii, and so they are naturally attracted to karaoke.

          I’ve never heard about how Asians “don’t like to talk” when when they go out. Never thought about it this way. But yes, you are right about this. Apart from going karaoke and silently playing dice, Asians – in Asia and Australia – also like to play chess, checkers, billiards, bowling and ice-skating when they are out and about. Very different from many Caucasians in Australia who often like to spend time chatting in twos or threes or more at cafes, parks and the beach as well as house parties.

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  2. Bubble Tea is nice. I do notice that many customers are Asian background; I think it’s got to do with culture and personal preference. Occasionally I do see non-Asians lining up for a drink, I guess it’s all about giving it a try – and everyone has different tastes 🙂

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    • Yes, I agree it’s about culture and personal preference. Drinking tea is steeped in Asian cultures. And there are so many types of Chinese teas – Oolong, Pu-er, jasmine, chrysanthemum etc. Most of them are really strong tasting, and perhaps don’t suit Western palates 😀

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    • I am somehow experiencing the opposite. I own a bubble tea room in Glasgow, Scotland and my market is very much female Caucasians which I did not expect at all when we first opened 2 months ago. It’s situated next to Glasgow uni and the amount of Asian students that just walk past the shop is alarming.

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      • That is very interesting and surprising to hear, Will. I don’t really know what to say as a lot of my Asian friends love bubble tea. Maybe the bubble tea is served differently and the Asian students aren’t familiar with it. It’s mind-boggling that they walk by, I am so sorry to hear that.

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  3. I love bubble tea! But, it’s interesting—it took me a while to get used to it and begin to like it. I didn’t like it much when I first tried it in Taiwan. But now I miss it very much. We don’t have any stores that sell it near my home… This is another good reason for me to visit Australia. 🙂

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    • I guess that’s the way with trying new foods or drinks – at first we may not like them, but after a while we get used to the tastes and before you know it, you can’t get enough of it! I’m sure a Chinatown in your area sells bubble tea?! 😀

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  4. I read some article years ago praising the virtues of bubble tea as a healthier alternative to fizzy drinks. I think this was a key part of its popularity early on. These days, it also serves as a good alternative in social gatherings for Asians who don’t share the Australian appreciation for beer.

    I think the divide between Asian and western consumption is due to the difference in appreciation for tea. Several of my friends and colleagues (who grew up in Asian countries) have explained to me how some stores are better than others owing to differences in the quality of the tea, sometimes going into detail that flies completely over my head. To me, bubble tea is mostly a sweet drink with tasty choking hazards.

    I had some bubble tea while I was in Xi’an a couple of years ago. Everyone around me was drinking it hot, so when I insisted on having mine cold, the girl who served me looked at me as though I was crazy. It had never occured to me bubble tea could be anything other than a cold beverage. I wonder why we in Australia generally have it cold, even in winter. Or are people in China/Xi’an strange for having it hot?

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    • Very good point about bubble tea being the alternative to beer. Come to think of it, most bubble tea shops here in Oz stay open til 10-11pm at night, so Asians who don’t drink alcohol but feel like a drink can go grab a bubble tea.

      I definitely agree with you about bubble tea being a ‘mostly sweet drink with tasty choking hazards’. To me, bubble tea is just as bad as fizzy drinks. Apart from plain milk tea with pearls, the other bubble teas are very, very sweet. I’ve tried chocolate milk tea, coconut milk tea, taro milk tea etc. and all of them taste…well, saccharinely sweet and sometimes I forget what bubble tea drink I’m actually drinking. And yes, in my opinion some stores serve better bubble tea e.g. this store has better tapioca pearls.

      I’ve seen stores in Oz serving hot bubble teas in winter, but I don’t think it’s caught on yet here. Maybe it’s just isn’t that cold weather-wise here and so we have our bubble-teas cold 😀

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  5. Pingback: Bubble Tea in South Korea | From Korea with Love

    • Thanks Mat! I checked out Tea n’ Milk on Facebook. I see that it’s located in New York. Can’t get any of that here in Australia! Hopefully I get to try it someday. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

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  6. Milk tea has been around the world as long as you can find those two ingredients. Westerners have their own version of English tea but Taiwanese made it a new trend and offer different kinds of varieties, at least bubble tea reminds people of health but everything must be kept in moderation. Too much sugar or whipping cream also not good. I personally like classic green tea with 25% sugar and don’t quite fancy those black pearls or taro balls. I only hope any of those leading stores can include rooibos/redbush tea on their menus because it’s one of the healthiest tisane. Last but not least, the more competitors the better, at least we can see improvements.

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    • The Western version of bubble tea can be dubbed as’chai tea’ or ‘chai latte’, which is tea mixed with milk. To me, chai tea tastes odd. I suppose this is due to the lack of sweeteners in these drinks, unlike bubble tea. You’re right in implyinh that too much bubble tea isn’t all that good for our health. Looking at the ingredients one by one that go into bubble tea, I shudder to think how much sugar one can potentially consume in one cup. I also shudder at the large cup sizes of bubble tea. Agree with you there the more competitors the better. Not only can we see improvements, we can get a wider variety (in terms of flavours and recipes) of the drink. Perhaps one day “the making of Asian bubble tea” will become an art. That’s something I reckon is exciting.

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  7. I saw this on a TV program and I wish to share it with you all. Did you know how those ancient Chinese physicians can survive despite they got poisoned from their herbal experiments? The secret is they drank tea on a daily basis!

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