S01E02 - Bobalicious
I am on sussex street...this is arguably the hottest spot for bubble tea in sydney, there are about 8 bubble tea shops within a 1 block radius, so let’s go meet some of the customers.
How often do you drink bubble tea?
People on the street
Once a week maybe
Three times a week….Two to three times a week
Like two to three times a week
Just once a week
These days? Too often, almost every day
Do you come to get bubble tea as like, is it a treat for you? Or is it like just a hang out? Or what is it?
People on the street
Bubble tea is in my blood. It’s like my air that I breathe. It’s not a treat. It’s like my everything.
From just a couple of tea shops in Taiwan to a multi billion dollar industry. How did this seemingly simple drink become a worldwide phenomenon? And why do Asians have such an affinity to it?
Hello and welcome to Shoes Off, stories about Asian Australian culture. I’m Jay Ooi.
Today’s episode: Bubble tea. Or Milk tea. Or boba, whatever you call it.
But what exactly is it? Well the most basic drink is tea, mixed with a creamer, add some sugar, shake it with ice, and pour it over some balls of cooked tapioca flour. And what do you get? Apparently magic.
And of course you can’t do an episode about bubble tea without actually getting some.
This is Zhi, the man behind the bubble tea blog. You’ll hear from him later in the show.
But I still don’t really get this bubble tea craze.
It’s like coffee in Western societies, so people can drink bubble tea on a daily basis.
That’s Eddy Xu. He works at the Australian head office for Gong Cha, our largest bubble tea chain.
It is because it originated in Asia so therefore a lot of Asian populations embrace such drink in a more friendly manner.
And Eddy’s right, it is an Asian thing, but where exactly did bubble tea come from? Well it’s actually little debatable but it is said to have originated in Taiwan in the 1980’s. Combining the idea of tea served cold with a typical taiwanese dessert consisting of tapioca pudding, suddenly it’s the hottest drink in town.
And these boba, or pearls, these balls of tapioca flour, they’re almost synonymous to bubble tea itself. And consumers are picky.
People on the street
It has to be chewy. It’s not rock hard….it can’t be clumpy. You can tell if they cook it and didn’t stir it enough, then it clumps together and then you can’t suck it through the straw....if they soak it in brown sugar or honey, then that’s good boba for me.
So I asked Eddy how Gong Cha gets the pearls so consistent.
To have the pearl evenly cooked or boiled is the key. In ours, our present procedure is we have to boil the water to 100 degrees and cook over high heat until it’s flat, and boil another 24 minutes under low heat and then cover the lid with no heat for another 25 minutes, so it takes an hour or more to make jus the pearls. Therefore you get an evenly cooked pearls with chewy inside...It is both an art I feel like.
Since its humble origins, the bubble tea market has exploded - not just in the number of stores but in the variety of products.
I might just get you to introduce yourself again
My name is Zhi-Weng, I grew up in Melbourne in the Western suburbs...and I run a blog on bubble tea because I really like bubble tea, and I want to find the best bubble tea in the world
So this would be 20 years ago, back in the 2000s and then it was just a few stores...I like to call this the dark ages of bubble tea because it’s really different to what we have now, where what we had was just water and then they put in tea powder and creamer...you can’t really call it tea, it’s like a tea flavoured water.
We still liked it a lot, I would say we liked it because that’s all we knew...I think people enjoyed drinking the pearls...the pearls were a lot harder than what we see now...it was not popular at all, very obscure but it did have like a cult following and then this was pretty much the status quo for maybe 10 years.
so around 2011, 2012...this was when the international chain stores started coming in, so the first one would be Chatime and then Gong Cha...it was a game changer because it started using real tea instead of tea powder.
I think Coco came in four or five years later...but it’s only in the last two or three years where we’ve started seeing an explosion in stores.
So in Australia bubble tea started fairly niche and not really being that good of a product, but we still liked it because it was all we knew. But since the arrival of more international chains, the quality has improved, with competition increasing too. I asked Eddy how Gong Cha is doing.
Because there are so many bubble tea brands at the moment, what are they doing to set themselves apart?
What we try to set up as different is we keep the bubble tea, especially the milk form, at our heart, because that’s how Gong Cha established it. Milk foam plus the bubble tea...I think we keep the product the old fashioned, and we haven’t really changed any of the recipe to fit into what I would say the Western tongue
So Gong Cha are sticking to what they know best, and it seems to be working for them. Let’s check back in with some of our bubble tea drinkers on the street.
When bubble tea first became big, I honestly thought it was going to be a fad. Like frozen yoghurt, I kind of expected it to be super popular one year, and kind of die the next. But the opposite has kind of happened. In 2016, the bubble tea industry was valued at almost 2 billion dollars and is still growing. Zhi calls it the bubble tea boom, but what has changed? Why has bubble tea gotten so big?
So there was a big explosion in bubble tea stores and it continued to use more fancy ingredients, so not just normal tea. They probably started using more specific tea varieties that had fancy names…
There was a bigger focus on aesthetics, so I think maybe it’s part of the culture today how we want to show people our lives, and then maybe the people that make bubble tea caught on and they’re like, “Oh we’ll make something that’s very fancy and then people can show that off to their friends.”...It became really mainstream as well...it’s everywhere, you can see it everywhere and everybody is happy to get it.
Why did you think it boomed so much?
I think a simple reason would be say the biggest consumers are east asians and I think over the years we’ve seen a greater influx of east asians into Australia, so I think that helped to improve the popularity, then the second thing is I think it feels like there’s been a shift towards having food, like a foodie culture, and even like I would say showing yourself off to your friends.
The third thing is just the quality improved. I don’t think people would have really liked the drinks we had 20 years ago where it’s just water and tea powder, but now you actually have a drink that tastes nice.
I think it’s become more inventive.
That’s David Tran, Aussie born Vietnamese and a lover of bubble tea and all things Asian.
David You know you’ve got so many different flavours that didn’t used to exist.
There’s this Taiwanese tea place...and everyone likes it for the novelty of the fact that it comes in a pot plant style, you know it looks like a pot plant, right? And then they’ll decorate on the top with chocolate and a little sprig of mint or something, so that it looks like a pot plant. And you know, I don’t think it tastes that great but that’s their differentiating factor.
So there’s a few chains out there that really put a focus on making their drinks look nice…
so they might go from blue to red...they’re very colourful.
Okay so buble tea has gotten more aesthetically pleasing, and more insta worthy. But it’s not just the product, it’s everything else around it, and Zhi cares about this too.
I guess I don’t just look at the drink, I try to think of it as experience. Which is a whole like, “I went to get bubble tea at this store.” Not just the drink, like what did it look like, or how did I feel, or how did I feel in general about the whole thing…
You can actually drink in at a store and the ambience is really important. Just like a cafe, how people want to catch up at a cafe now, now you can catch up at a bubble tea store, so having a whole experience is important.
Eddy from Gong Cha has also seen this shift.
I think the overall experience is critical to the success of the business as well. Essentially, you’re not paying for the drink - you’re paying for the environment, if there’s a city, you’re paying for the small stop of space.
Okay, so bubble tea we’ve seen bubble tea grow and evolve. We’ve seen it boom and diverge, and we’ve seen it become more mainstream. But what is with Asians and their bubble tea? Why does it hold such a strong place in the heart of young Asian culture? I asked Eddy, who often visits China to see relatives, what it means for people there.
What is its place in Chinese culture there?
It is a social thing there. It also is a representative of your lifestyle and living qualities.
It’s more about how often you enjoy life.
That’s the time where I go back to my home country and visit my extended families. That’s the time when you will see a lot of strange things that they do that you initially thought “oh it’s so weird” but over time you actually embrace it.
Okay, so bubble tea is a sign of your lifestyle in China, but what about here in Australia? I asked Zhi about this.
Even us who were born in Australia didn’t grow up with bubble tea, we still were the ones who first adopted bubble tea and loved bubble tea, why do you think there’s such a strong Asian affinity to bubble tea?
Even though we weren’t close to it, but we want to be close to Asian culture, so I think bubble tea stores are, well they’ve become like cafes for europeans, where it’s a way for us to try to connect to our asian culture...we don’t want to try and connect to our roots, and going to a bubble tea store we feel like in that small way, that we’re embracing our culture just that little bit.
It’s almost like it’s become an Asian quality or a trait to like bubble tea, so people think “Oh I feel like you understand me just that little bit, that we both like bubble tea.” And that’s another nice aspect of the cultural bit of bubble tea.
Bubble tea, it brings asians together, and it makes us feel connected to each other. David, the keen bubble tea drinker, seems to agree.
I have a lot of friends, for example, who will go out and take a photo of their milk tea and it’s just the same, a very normal milk tea, but the caption will be hashtag daily does of milk tea. Or something like that, and it’s just become a part of everyday life for some people.
I think it’s because it’s part of their connection to Asia, and so they, a lot of the time, they will compare a lot of things back to what you can get in Asia.
I love my Asian identity so I actively seek it out...I love going for asian food and then getting my boba tea afterwards, because it makes me feel like, number one I’m in Asia, number two I feel distinctly Asian doing these things. So despite being born in Australia, I still have that big connection to my asian identity.
I find that really more interesting with you, because your background is vietnamese and this is a very Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Chinese drink, but you still feel like you’re connecting back to your culture.
I guess that’s because the drinks in Vietnam aren’t ….they’re not as popular here. And so that’s why that’s a part of it. The milk tea thing is just so popular here, so it’s just easier.
What would make you stop drinking milk tea?
Interestingly enough, if it lost its cool Asian factor. If the Asians decided one day taht there’s a new thing in town and that milk tea is not cool anymore, I might start to go, “Oh maybe I don’t want to drink it anymore.”
So yes, bubble tea somehow connects us back to our culture. It’s this weird asian drink that we’ve come to embrace and love, partly because it’s Asian and it’s almost like we’re celebrating our asian-ness when we drink it. And it’s still mostly ours, but it is catching on to non-asians as well. We’ve seen the format evolve into various versions of itself - you can still get the classics, but more inventive and aesthetic options have popped up. And whilst I’m still not 100% convinced that all these fancy variations are going to stick around for a long time, I think the category as a whole is here to stay. At least for some time.
That’s asians and bubble tea.
This episode of Shoes Off was hosted, produced, written and edited by me Jay Ooi
Special thanks to everyone we spoke to for this episode Eddy, Zhi Weng and David, and also those that didn’t make it in, Ben and Julianne.
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That Bubble Tea Blog: https://thatbubbleteablog.wordpress.com/tag/australia/
Gong Cha Australia: https://www.gongchatea.com.au/