What do a sexy Hong Kong icon, a bankrupted entrepreneur and a failed military defense campaign have in common?
They all contributed to the rise of bubble tea, the insanely popular Taiwanese drink that’s taken the world by storm in recent years.
Invented in the 1980s, bubble tea (also called “black pearl tea” or “boba tea”) is a beloved Taiwan classic. Though there are dozens of different variations, at its core it’s a combination of tea, milk and the ‘bubbles’ — which are essentially little balls made of anything from tapioca to fruit jelly.
A star item in Taiwan state banquets for three consecutive years, bubble tea is one of the new official emojis of 2020 and in recent months has taken on new forms, appearing on top of pizzas and inside cheesecakes.
In honor of National Bubble Tea Day (April 30), we take a walk back in time to explore how the humble drink rose from a local delicacy to become an international phenomenon.
A global addiction
According to a recent study, the bubble tea industry is expected to grow by almost $2 billion to a whopping $4.3 billion by 2027.
Bubble tea orders in Southeast Asia recorded a 3,000% increase in 2018 alone, while the drink has been popping up in menus outside of Asia for quite some time as well. Germany, for instance, added bubble tea to its McDonald’s menu back in 2012.
How devoted are fans of the drink? Recently in Singapore, when bubble tea shops were ordered to close temporarily to contain the spread of Covid-19, anxious crowds rushed to get their last sweet fix and bid their favorite beverage a temporary farewell.
The origins of bubble tea
So where did it all begin?
The roots of bubble tea can be traced back to the 1940s.
After working as a mixologist in an izakaya in Taiwan under Japanese rule during WWII, in 1949 Chang Fan Shu opened a tea shop selling unique shou yao (hand-shaken) tea made with cocktail shakers.
The result was a rich and silky iced tea with fine air bubbles on top — dubbed foam tea in Taiwan.
Today, shou yao is an essential bubble tea element. No shou yao, no bubble tea.
It was a revolutionary invention at that time — not only were cold drinks not common then, but the idea of consuming food and beverages for pleasure had only begun to grow in post-war Taiwan. In the coming years, the island’s passion for tasty cold beverages intensified.
“The trend of tea beverages prospered together with the rise of the leisure food trend in the 1980s as Taiwan was experiencing rapid economic growth,” says Tseng Pin Tsang, a Taiwanese food historian.”
In addition to the industrial pre-packaged tea products, there were more tea shops on the street and tea restaurants in the suburbs.”