Bubble Tea – The Taste of Taiwan

Although bubble tea has been popular in Asia since the 1980s, it has taken thirty years for it to travel across Europe. It is not entirely certain who created the first bubble tea, as several cafés claimownership to its invention. Tapioca is widely used in Asia, often being cut into strips, fried and served much like chips or potato wedges. One attribution to the origin of bubble tea is that it was invented by Ms. Lin Hsiu Hui, who was the product development manager of the Chun Shui Tang teahouse, as she poured the sweeten tapioca balls into tea during a meeting in 1988. It was met with a positive response and susequently introduced to their menu.

Bubble tea is essentially a tea and milk based drink, to which chewy tapioca balls are added, so the drinker experiences a sensation of drinking and chewing at the same time. The tapioca pearls, which are a starchy extract of the cassava plant, have a gummy bear texture and a caramel undertone, and they are what give the drink its bubbly appearance. You choose a type of tea, followed by a fruit flavouring, then a tapioca pearl flavour is added.

I enjoyed my first bubble tea at Gong Fu noodle bar in Bath, which was a caramel and chocolate flavour. It was an interesting experience – a smooth milky liquid with a layer of chewy balls at the bottom, which I sucked up with a fat straw. I loved it, especially the chewy tapioca balls, almost like jelly sweets: it can all become quite addictive.

Another purveyor of bubble tea in the southwest is Cupp Tea Bar. Lee and Amy, who run the company, discovered the drink while they were living in Taiwan teaching English.

“We would drink bubble tea pretty almost every day,” Lee told me, “especially the fruit teas, as they were so refreshing in the heat. When we left Taiwan we wanted to bring something back with us that would keep us connected to the country. Bubble tea was the obvious choice, as it’s the country’s national drink. It’s part of their identity and we wanted to share it with people back home.”

Making bubble tea is a tricky process and not one that would be easy to replicate at home. Cupp Tea Bar make their own tapioca pearls, which take up to an hour to cook. It’s a delicate process and one in which you have to get the temperature and timings just perfect. If you overcook the tapioca pearls then they turn to mush, and if you undercook them then they are too hard. To make the tea itself, you mix fresh milk (or soya milk) with tea, your choice of flavouring and a little sugar in a cocktail shaker and then add your tapioca pearls.

“We use fresh milk and fresh fruit,” Lee explained, “so all our drinks are vegetarian and vegan friendly. We also use a machine that shakes our bubble teas for us, so they froth up. We have another machine that seals the top of our drinks. In Taiwan the bubble tea is always sealed – this is so it doesn’t spill everywhere when taken away on scooters.”

Cupp Tea Bar sell their bubble and fruit teas out of a Critoën H van called Pearl, named after the essential tapioca pearls in bubble tea.

“We chose to use a van because it’s a way for us to drive around to see as many people as possible. We also set up at the time when the street food movement was starting. We thought we needed a quirky van to go with our quirky product.

“It isn’t easy to prepare bubble tea in the van. There’s not a lot of space and we do everything in it – steeping the tea, cooking the tapioca and blending the fruit.”

While still unknown to many, bubble tea is spreading across Britain, with outlets popping up in London and other areas. Some love it and some are not so sure, the jury is out. While I and many of my friends are fans, some are not so keen on the drink, especially the chewy tapioca.

“There’s been a mixture of reactions, but bubble tea is generally being received well. People usually see the long queue at the van and join it, seeing bubble tea as something special. When most people first try it they’re not sure, but when they finish they find that they do like it. We’ve got a lot of returning customers.

“It’s becoming popular over here because it’s something that’s so different. Britain hasn’t seen these types of drinks before. It’s that experience of drinking and chewing. It can also be a really healthy drink – the fruit teas are just fresh fruit juice and ice.”

Over in Taiwan, bubble tea is drunk as a snack. It’s a light refreshing beverage in the hot temperatures. The drink has also made its way to American and Australia where there are large Asian communities and similar climates. In Taiwan there are over 8,000 outlets of bubble tea, with one on almost every street. In Britain we may be thirty years behind with this phenomenon, but are slowly catching up. Bubbology is a well-known bubble tea outlet in London and has been open for nearly two years now, and more and more businesses are starting up selling this tea, often selling it alongside other snacks such as frozen yogurt. Cardiff have their Bubblebase, Brighton their Pearls Bubble Tea Café and Bath now recently acquired Piincha. All of Britain’s bubble tea outlets are in the southern cities, but maybe one day they will begin their spread north.

As Britain’s climate is a lot colder than Taiwan’s Cupp Tea Bar have introduced some hot teas to their range.

“We had to think about what would go well with the hot milk and tea. Some of the fresh fruit teas obviously won’t work with either, so we had to rethink our flavours. Of course we still have the tapioca pearls at the bottom.

“We did lots of research in Taiwan before we left to choose what flavours we would have in our bubble tea. Friends would take us to small tea shops to try their flavours. Some would specialise in the teas and others in the tapioca pearls. We chose our favourites and composed our menus using these. We also tried to mix together the flavours of the east and west, so we have the traditional western flavours such as blueberry and strawberry, but we also have some more unusual flavours such as taro and honeydew.”

I finished my interview with Cupp Tea Bar with a strawberry and green tea fruit tea, layered with passion fruit popping bubbles. I walked to the bus station, sucking up the sweet drink and popping the bubbles in my mouth, each one filling it with an explosion of tangy passion fruit.

Cupp Tea Bar are planning to open a shop in Bristol in 2013, and will continue to do festivals during the summer and spread the bubble tea word further across the UK. You can find them at Quaker’s Friar’s, Cabot Circus from Thursday to Sunday.

Contact Details

Cupp Tea Bar: www.cuppteabar.co.uk   Follow on Twitter: @cuppteabar

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