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What is Boba? A Tea Lover’s Guide to Bubble Tea

Love for tea has no boundaries. Many regions around the world have done their experiments with tea. Every now and then, these experiments have given tea lovers something new to fall in love with tea all over again. One such tea variation which has earned adorers world over is the boba tea.

Boba is another name for the more commonly known bubble tea. It is a tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan and gets its name from the chewy tapioca pearls that sit at its bottom. It can be served either hot or cold and has many variations. The tea in it is either black, green, or oolong, and boba has many flavors including both fruit and non-fruit.

Boba tea has an interesting history from its origin to how it became a world-famous commodity. In this article, along with the history of boba tea, we will go over all there is to know about it, so grab a cup of tea and let’s get started. 

What Are the Origins of Boba Tea?

As mentioned earlier, the country of origin for boba tea is Taiwan and can be traced back to the mid-1980s. There are two Taiwanese restaurant chains that claim to have invented bubble tea. These include the Hanlin Tea Room in the city of Tainan and Chun Shui Tang in the city of Taichung.

Chun Shui Tang had started serving cold tea to its customers in the summer months and saw a considerable increase in their business. Later, it was Lin Hsiu Hui, the company’s product development manager, who introduced tapioca pearls into a cold-infused tea.

This was well-received at the company and was later introduced to the customers and won praises all over. 

Later, Chun Shui Tang expanded to other countries and its subsidiary, TP Tea, has now got branches in Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and the United States.

Hanlin Tea Room’s story has a simpler narration with its owner, Tu Tsong-He, getting inspired by white tapioca pearls and tried them in tea which turned out great.

Nonetheless, despite different tea houses taking credit for the invention of bubble tea, one thing is undisputed that it originated in Taiwan.

Other Names for Boba

Along with bubble tea, boba tea has many names and these differ by location. For example, it is called Zhēnzhū nǎichá or bō bà nǎi chá in Chinese.

These two names translate into pearl milk tea and bubble tea and differentiate from each other on the basis of the size of tapioca balls. Zhēnzhū nǎichá (pearl milk tea) has 1/12th-inch tapioca pearls, and bōbà nǎichá (boba tea) uses larger tapioca balls, usually around 1/4-inch.

Can you detect the pattern? Essentially, a tea with smaller tapioca balls gets named around pearls, and the one with larger balls gets named boba or bubble. By the way, boba is a slang term used in Taiwan and parts of China for “large breasts”.

In other names, it is called pào pào chá in Singapore.

In English-speaking countries including the United States commonly used names for boba include bubble tea, pearl tea drink, boba ice tea, pearl shake, pearl milk tea, black pearl tea, tapioca ball drink, pearl ice tea, BBT, PT, and QQ among many others.

is boba healthy

What Are Ingredients of Boba Tea?

In its basic/original form, boba tea consists of black tea, ice, milk, and tapioca pearls. These are all shaken together and mostly served in a transparent cup with a straw big enough to accommodate the tapioca pearls.

The tapioca balls in their basic form are made up of starch that comes from the cassava root.

However, boba tea has seen many alterations to its basic/original formulation and currently, there are countless forms of boba tea. These alterations have been to all of its basic constituents.

For example, in tea, we see the usage of not only black tea but also green tea, oolong tea, and sometimes white tea. We also see the decaffeinated versions and the ones which also add coffee instead of tea.

Moreover, in place of the traditional tapioca pearls, which are black, we also see green pearls and white pearls. Green pearls use a hint of green tea and are said to be chewier than the original tapioca pearls. White pearls, on the other hand, are made from seaweed extract and have a crunchier texture.

In another variation, you may also come across jelly toppings in bubble tea. These are not made up of gelatin and can be coconut meat or konjac, which is a vegetable byproduct. You can also come across any sort of jelly taking place of the traditional tapioca pearls. 

Popping boba is another popular topping and they have fruit juices or syrups inside them. They have thin gel-like skin and burst when squeezed.

Many bubble tea shops are mixing up interesting combinations of ingredients. Boba Bliss has a specialty drink on their menu called, Hojicha Cheese Cream, which contains roasted black soybean tea powder and you guessed it, cream cheese.

As far as the sugar content of the bubble tea is concerned, tea houses give the customer the option to choose from different levels, usually described in percentages. These can include 30%, 50%, 70% and 100%. The customer can also go for the no-sugar option.

Is Boba Tea Alcoholic?

Bubble tea is not alcoholic in its basic form but there are alcoholic variations available. They are called boozy bubble tea or spiked bubble tea. Just like the bubble tea itself, alcoholic bubble tea has many flavors.

You can add your favorite: gin, vodka, rum, or any other type of alcohol for that matter.

One way of making alcoholic boba tea is to infuse the pearls with alcohol. This is mostly done with vodka and you use cooked tapioca pearls. You put these cooked tapioca pearls in a container and pour enough vodka to cover these pearls.

Stir along the way and let it sit for 10-15 minutes for pearls to soak the vodka. Don’t let it sit for more than that as it will change the taste and texture of the pearls. You can then use these vodka-infused pearls for any cocktail.

In other forms, you basically use different popping boba flavors and place them in alcoholic drinks. You simply use any form of tea, add in milk and pearls, and put in your favorite alcohol and you can have your alcoholic boba tea.

In a normal world, tea and alcohol are two very different beverages, but in boozy boba, you can experience this rare combination. 

Bubbleology lately has made a name for itself for its wide variety of alcoholic boba and has branches in the UK and United States.

Is Boba Tea Caffeinated?

In most of its variations, boba tea is caffeinated and its caffeine content depends on the type of tea it contains.

For example, if boba contains black tea, it generally has 40-70 mg of caffeine per eight-ounce serving as opposed to 35-45 mg in a similar serving if it contains green tea. Moreover, white tea and oolong tea contain 15-30 mg and 37-55 mg per eight-ounce servings respectively.

To put things into perspective, coffee contains 95 to 200 mg of caffeine in its eight-ounce serving.

However, it must be noted that because boba tea is usually served in higher quantities, usually in upwards of 10 ounces, the caffeine content increases accordingly.

That said, there are decaffeinated versions of boba tea available. For example, fruit-infused tea has no caffeine, and herbal teas also do not contain caffeine. Some of the decaffeinated bubble teas are:

  • Black Milk Tea
  • Mango Milk Tea
  • Green Milk Tea
  • Strawberry Milk Tea
  • Taro Milk Tea
  • Coffee Milk Tea
  • Almond Milk Tea

How Boba is Made?

As we know by now that boba can refer to both the tapioca pearls or the boba (bubble tea) itself.

The tapioca balls are made from tapioca starch which is extracted from cassava root. This starch is then given a dough-like consistency by adding boiling water and kneading it.

The dough is then cut into bubble or small ball shapes and at the end is put into a boiling mixture of brown sugar and water.

The above method gives us the original black tapioca pearls, but the color and texture of these can be changed by varying their original ingredients.

This is usually done by changing the amount of water, sugar, tapioca starch, and seasoning. Different food dyes are also used to change the color of the pearls.

When it comes to the bubble tea itself, we brew whichever tea we are going to use in water, be it black, green, or white. After that, milk powder and sugar are added as per taste. This mixture is then allowed to cool and shaken with ice.

You can also add flavors in the form of powder, pulp, syrup, or honey. In the end, this mixture is then poured into a cup with tapioca pearls at the bottom. There you have it, your next cup of bubble tea.

In another recipe, fruit bubble tea gives you the option to skip the milk and use fruit juice instead. So, you take some quantity of any of the fruit juice in a concentrated form and add sugar as per your preference.

Pour in ice and add cooled tea water, be it green, black, or white. You then add ice water and then shake this mixture and your fruit bubble tea is ready.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s simple to make boba tea at home. Here’s a great bubble tea recipe you can whip up any time you get a craving.

is boba caffeinated

What is Taro Bubble Tea?

Taro bubble tea is a boba tea flavor and is made by adding taro powder. This powder is extracted from taro which is a root vegetable for a plant named Araceae. This plant originated in tropical regions of Asia and is now cultivated around the world.

Depending on the region, taro roots can be pink, purple, or white. Taro’s texture resembles a potato. 

For making one cup of taro bubble tea, half a cup of tea is brewed and two tablespoons of taro powder are added. To dissolve this powder, this tea base needs to be mixed well. The steps after this depend upon personal preference including adding sugar, honey, and milk.

Taro powder is mostly used just as a flavor and is quite popular because of its color and starchy texture. In taro bubble tea, it gives out a flavor that resembles vanilla. Taro root is rich in fiber, minerals, and vitamin B6. 

If you’re interested in finding more about ube vs taro in your bubble tea, they’re both made from root vegetables.

Is Bubble Tea Vegan?

If you are someone who is vegan and want to know if bubble tea fits your lifestyle or diet preferences, then let me tell you bubble tea falls in a tricky arena from this point of view.

We have talked about how bubble tea is made and its various ingredients. It is obvious that most of the commercially available milk bubble teas are not an option. This is because they mostly use cow’s milk/creamers making it non-vegan.

However, now, there are bubble tea houses that are offering vegan versions of bubble tea. These places mostly use oat milk, but can also use almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk or rice milk. These include Kung Fu Tea, Boba Guys, and Juicy Cube in the US among others. 

Obviously, you can always go for fruit bubble teas that don’t use any milk.

Among other ingredients, tapioca pearls are basically made from cassava roots, so they are vegan. However, some stores may use honey to sweeten them which obviously comes from animal sources. So, do ask beforehand if honey had been used to sweeten the tapioca pearls.

In toppings, avoid puddings as they are made using eggs. Moreover, some of the jellies are made from gelatin which is made from bones and tendons of animals. Instead, go for vegan jellies such as lychee and rainbow jellies.

In short, being the highly customizable and versatile drink bubble tea is, it is easy to help yourself get a vegan bubble tea.

Is Bubble Tea Gluten-Free?

Most of the commonly available bubble tea variations are gluten-free. This is because all types of teas and plain cow’s milk are free of gluten. Besides, the same can be said about the tapioca pearls, sugar, and any fruit flavors.

Is Drinking Bubble Tea Bad for Your Health?

As mentioned earlier, bubble tea in its basic formulation consists of tea, milk, sugar, and tapioca pearls. These ingredients combined give boba its nutritional profile. 

It’s well known that there are many health benefits of tea, but does boba cancel them out?

Ever since boba tea became popular, a host of health concerns have been voiced. Out of these, a lot has to do with the sugar content of this tea.

As pointed out before, tapioca pearls are made up of starch and starches are usually high in carbohydrates and sugars and bobas are no exception.

USDA records show that an ounce of traditional tapioca pearls contains 15 g of carbohydrates and it also has a number of preservatives and artificial colors. Similarly, one ounce of popping boba contains 6 grams of carbs, but most of it (5 g) is sugar. In reality, a 16-ounce serving of bubble tea exceeds the upper limit of allowed added sugar intake per day.

This combined with any added sugar, and carbohydrates in milk give rise to a high number of calories from carbs. It is estimated that a 500-ml serving of milk bubble tea has 325 calories and this constitutes about one-fifth of a 2000-calorie-per-day diet. What compounds this is the fact that bubble teas are usually served in higher serving sizes than 500 ml.

One study suggests that boba drink is part of a larger group of sugar‐sweetened beverages (SSB) and it can lead to weight gain and obesity. A single 700-ml serving of bubble tea a day without modifying diet or activity level can cause a weight gain of around 1.3 to 2.0 kg per month. 

Besides this, tapioca pearls are low in minerals, vitamins, and fibers. Starch also has a tendency to bind together and with its low fiber content, it can lead to constipation or stool buildup in the intestine.

On the plus side, we have tea, which without any added ingredients is rich in antioxidants. Moreover, it contains phenols and polyphenols which have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. Milk, on the other hand, is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and proteins.

All things considered, it is best that you work to reduce the calories and sugar content of bubble tea. For this, you can opt for reduced levels of added sugars and reduce the number of toppings.

However, the best way to get the best of both worlds, enjoying the exotic taste of boba and not causing too much damage to your health, is to reduce the quantities you consume of boba tea. 

Final Thoughts

From its origins in Taiwan in the mid-1980s, boba has truly become a global addiction in no time. It started as a simple combination of milk, tea, ice, and tapioca pearls and now literally has countless variations. Whether it is its high customizability, presence of chewy pearls, or exotic looks and taste, the popularity of bubble tea is undisputed.

Its versatility means it can be made according to anybody’s preference. Whether you are vegan, can’t tolerate gluten, or avoid caffeine, bubble tea has variations available to cater to any of your predilections.

Health concerns about boba are genuine and have a lot to do with its sugar content. However, you can work your way around it by cutting down your sweetness level and lowering your overall consumption.

As an occasional treat, bubble tea is a delicious drink that shouldn’t cause you any health worries.

If you love tea as much as I do, pin this to your favorite tea-loving Pinterest board and pass it on for others to enjoy! Pinkies up!

what is boba tea guide