As my friends discovered that we were opening a tea bar at the bookstore, special requests began to pour in: Can you get me a first-flush Darjeeling? Will you have lapsang souchong? You’ll have gunpowder tea, right? Will you be stocking silver needle white tea? Are you going to have herbals? Can you bring in something good with ginger?
We selected our teas with a focus on “real” tea (Camellia sinensis) and related drinks like rooibos, honeybush, and maté. A few carefully-chosen herbals rounded out the mix. Then a friend asked if we were going to carry boba tea. Little did I know what that request would lead us to.
Stories vary, but the consensus seems to be that boba tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and took its sweet time (no pun intended) finding its way to the United States and picked up the nickname “bubble tea” because of the way it’s prepared. In Taiwan, it was called boba milk tea (波霸奶茶 or bōbà nǎichá), but it has many other names around the world. I have no idea whether there’s any truth to Boba Loca‘s story that “boba” is a children’s slang word for “nipple” in Mandarin.
Like chili or meatloaf, it seems that no two shops make boba tea the same way. What they all have in common is tapioca balls (“pearls”) sitting in the bottom of a chilled drink, and a fat straw big enough — just barely — to suck the pearls through. The “hip” places often use very sweet flavorings, similar to the ones used in sno-cones, and many of the boba “tea” drinks have no tea in them at all.
Typically, boba tea uses a base drink — typically a green or black tea — with milk and sweet syrup. This is placed in a shaker with ice and shaken into a bubbly froth (hence the appellation “bubble tea). The frothy mix is poured over tapioca pearls in a clear glass or plastic cup and served. As you drink the tea, the pearls randomly ride up the straw, and you find yourself with something chewy in your tea. It’s a joy watching people’s faces as they experience this for the first time!
I started asking people from the coasts, where boba is most popular, whether they thought it would make a good addition to our tea bar. The three most common answers were, “what the heck is boba tea?”, “yes, because then you’d be a real tea bar,” and “no, real tea bars don’t serve that stuff.” Given this massive lack of consensus, my wife and I flipped a coin and said, “What the heck? Let’s give it a shot.”
First decision: Since we are a tea bar, all of our boba would use real tea. After a bit of experimentation, I picked a nice black tea (organic English breakfast) and a jasmine green tea to use as a base. Two options should be adequate, right? How naïve I was!
Second decision: We’d keep the sweet syrup as basic as possible, and prepare it in advance. Since boba tea isn’t exactly a diet drink, we’d make it with real brown and white sugar, but we wouldn’t make it overly sweet.
The day after we launched our test in the store, a friend from the west coast told me that boba with chai tea is quite popular in Seattle. Coincidentally, we had recently brought in a new organic fair-trade chocolate chai for the tea bar, made with pu-erh tea and yerba maté. We gave it a shot, and it was an immediate hit. My attempt to simplify choices by only offering two base teas went right out the window. By the end of the day, we were making boba with any of the 80 teas we have at the bar.
We also found that special requests didn’t stop at the base tea. Miss Amber, a good customer of ours from another shop down the street, is from the South, and she likes her tea very sweet! We now have a “Miss Amber Boba,” made from cinnamon orange spice tea and about three times the normal amount of syrup.
Boba tea has turned out not to be the novelty drink we expected it to be, but a mainstay of the menu, especially on hot days. Some experiments in our store turn out to be wild successes and some turn out to be dismal flops. I’m going to give boba tea a “success” rating, and start looking for the next experiment. Thai red tea, perhaps?