Everything you need to know about bubble tea, including types, toppings, how to order, and where to get the best boba tea.
Nowadays, it seems like you can go anywhere – even small town America – and see at least one shop that sells boba. But, what the heck is boba, where did it come from, and how do you drink it? As a long time boba addict, let me take you into the wonderfully sweet and chewy world of boba!
My first taste of boba was in the 90s, just like much of America. Next to the Asian grocery store we visited every weekend was a tiny shop that seemed to pop up overnight. The signs were in a mix of English and Chinese and the nice shop owners explained to everyone curious that boba nai cha (bubble milk tea) was the most popular drink all over Taiwan.
I LOVE boba. Boba runs through my veins.
I mean, not really because the pearls would get stuck, but I love boba tea so much I would have it every single day of my life, twice a day. It’s my go-to treat: creamy and sweet with a fun chew. It comes in so many flavors with so many toppings that I’m pretty sure I could have a new kind every day for a really long time.
What does boba tea taste like?
The classic boba milk tea is creamy and sweet with the essence of tea. The pearls are chewy with a tiny bit of mild sweetness. Boba milk tea is comforting and refreshing. If you take your tea with milk and sugar, you have an idea of what boba milk tea tastes like. The pearls add a pleasant chewiness similar to how gummy candies are chewy.
What is boba?
Boba is a broad term: it can refer to chewy black tapioca pearls or to a category of drinks sold in a boba tea shop. It’s kind of an umbrella term so you’ll hear people say they’re having boba when they’re having a slushy fruit drink boba OR a pumped up drink topped with cheese foam and oreos. Essentially, people use boba as a catch all phrase for all the delicious drinks sold in a boba shop. It’s also called boba tea, bubble tea, tapioca milk tea, or pearl milk tea. Originally the bubbles in bubble tea referred to the bubbles in shaken tea and not the pearls at all.
Boba milk tea
The most common and standard boba is boba milk tea, which strongly brewed tea mixed with milk and sugar shaken vigorously with ice and served with glossy black tapioca pearls. You get a thick straw so you can suck up the pearls and tea at the same time, simultaneously giving you something you drink and chew.
Where is boba from?
Maybe it seems like boba came out of no where, but the truth its, it’s been around since the 80s. Just like other popular foods out there, there are a couple of shops that claim to be the first ever creators of boba tea. Milk tea is not a new thing and chewy tapioca balls aren’t new either – they’ve been around in Asian and South East Asian desserts for a long time. The combination of the two together came together in Taiwan in the 80s.
The two shops that claim that they were the first are Chun Shui Tang and Hanlin Tea Room. The rumors go, Chun Shui Tang was already serving cold tea and they were looking for ways to improve sales. The product manager, Lin Hsiu Hui put some tapioca balls into her iced tea and thus boba milk tea was born. It’s not too clear on how Hanlin Tea Room invented boba milk tea but they claim to be the first as well and have been around since the 80s.
Boba drinks usually start with a base: either tea or fruit. Teas can range from black, green, oolong, and matcha. Fruits are pretty obvious, they can come as fruit juices or blended up with ice as fruit slush.
To the tea or fruit base, you can add milk, like the ever popular boba milk tea. When boba first came around the milk was a creamy mix of evaporated milk and condensed milk or non-dairy creamer, but now you can get all kinds of milk, depending on how hipster the boba shop you’re visiting. There are places that do soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, almond milk, you name it, if it’s milky, you can probably add it to your boba. The milk section also includes things like yogurt or yogurt drinks like Yakult.
Boba tea flavors
There are a plethora of flavors added to boba via syrups, powders, or fresh ingredients. Some common flavors are: taro, coconut, almond, black sesame, melon, ovaltine, chocolate, mango, lychee, matcha, and the list goes on. Each boba tea shop will have it’s own list of curated flavors.
The name toppings is kind of a misnomer because the toppings actually sink down into the bottom of your cup, but most boba shops refer to their mix-ins as toppings. You can get as many toppings as you like, making boba drinks infinitely customizable. Most toppings have a pleasant chewiness or “QQ” which means bouncy, chewy, and satisfying.
The most popular and common topping for bubble tea. Balls of tapioca boil and simmer until chewy and tender, then soak in either brown sugar, sugar, or honey. They are subtly sweet, chewy, and absolute perfection when done right. All boba shops cook their pearls daily because they harden and don’t last overnight or in the fridge.
Coconut or lychee jelly
Coconut jelly or nata de coco is coconut water set with gelatin. It comes in little clear rectangles and is a touch more crunchy rather than chewy. Sometimes they flavor the jelly with lychee and boom, it’s lychee jelly. Coconut and lychee jelly go great in tropical fruit based teas that don’t have any milk in them.
Aloe vera are clear jellied cubes that are harvested from the gel inside of large aloe vera leaves. They’re loaded with antioxidants and vitamins. Aloe ver is super refreshing, juicy, soft, and jelly-like with QQ. They’re soaked in syrup so they have a bit of sweetness and are they’re great in teas or fruit drinks that don’t have milk.
This isn’t your regular pudding cup pudding. Instead, think of pudding-like flan or custard. Essentially, it’s a jiggly custard made from eggs, cream, sugar, and gelatin. It’s extra creamy and soft with a bit of texture. You can suck it up through a thick straw and it pairs perfectly with creamy milk teas making them extra luxurious. The standard pudding flavor is vanilla but sometimes they have mango, taro, almond, or black sesame pudding too.
Grass jelly comes made from a plant that’s in the mint family. It’s a bit firm and can come either cut into small cubes or giant soft scoops that are easily sucked up through a straw. Think of it like jello but with a refreshing, slightly sweet, and herbaceous flavor. It goes great with milk tea and coffee based drinks and is lower calorie than boba making it a popular choice.
Red bean is an incredibly popular dessert flavor in asian desserts and red bean boba is delicious! Adzuki beans simmer until tender with sugar, making them starchy, chewy, and fragrant. They go great in milky teas and matcha based drinks, giving them an earthy, sweet chew.
Foams are relatively new development in the boba world. Whipped foam toppings come in a huge array of flavors and is a fun and fluffy way of adding creaminess to boba. They have things like tiramisu cream, sea salt cream, and cheese tea. The idea is that the foams/whipped toppings are a liquid fluffy mousse or cheesecake that add an extra dimension of texture and flavor.
Ice and sugar levels
Boba is all about customization and two of the basic customization questions you’ll get are: ice and sweetness. Boba comes warm/hot, which is perfect in the fall and winter. Ice and sugar can range from full ice/sugar to less ice/sugar. Boba shops usually have a handy little chart for you to look at with the ice and sweetness levels.
From sweetest to zero sugar:
From cold to hot:
After your boba master gets your order, they’ll make your drink according to your customizations and pop everything into a cup, either plastic or paper, depending on the store. The cups are sealed with a paper or plastic film and they give you a thick straw with a pointy tip so you can puncture the lid and get to the goodness. Some shops have switched over to tops that aren’t sealed and have pre-made holes for you to pop straws into.
The best way to poke the straw in is to place the cup on a stable surface, position the straw on top of the lid with one hand while using the other hand to firmly push down on the top of the straw.
Most boba places have switched to paper straws and you can even get reusable straws made out of metal or glass.
Hot drinks are usually served in a typical to-go coffee cup with a spoon so you can scoop out your toppings.
What type of boba should I get?
Is this your first time?
If yes: Go for the classic milk tea, cold, with pearls. Choose your ice and sweetness according to your preferences.
If no: go to the next question!
Hot or cold?
- Hot: Have you had hot bubble tea before? It’s amazing when it’s cold outside! A warm boba is like a cozy hug. Get a roasted milk tea with pearls. Warm pearls will change your life.
- Cold: Try a lychee green tea with aloe vera. It’s super refreshing and SO good.
Do you like tea or fruit?
Tea: Matcha is always a good choice, try it with red beans and a foam/cheese top for a mix of earthy, sweet, creamy goodness.
Fruit: Peach mango tea with pearls and coconut jelly for the ultimate in QQ and refreshing flavor.
Are you into creamy drinks?
Yes: Try a slush! It’s like a fruit slurpee. Melon or taro are classic choices and they’re both cult favorites and they’re blended and creamy.
No: Fruit tea is the way to go. Passionfruit tea with any sort of jelly, especially grass jelly is extra delicious.
Do you want toppings?
Yes: If you’re a topping pro, you know what to get. If you’ve had a couple of cups and want to branch out I suggest you try brown sugar boba, aloe vera, or pudding!
No: NOOOOOOO you must get toppings, I beg you.
Do you like it sweet?
Sweet: I usually go half sweet or less sweet, but if you have a sweet tooth you’ll probably want regular sugar.
Not too sweet: Most people get less sweet and below, it’s up to you! You are the master of your boba.
How to order boba
Most boba shops have their own way of ordering, but generally, you place your order like this:
- Sugar level
- Ice level
- Wait and slurp away!
example: regular roasted rice tea with half pearls/half grass jelly, half sugar, less ice.
Popular boba shops
There are so many world wide chains of boba shops, many from Taiwan, the birthplace of boba. If you want a boba education, try them out. They’re all known for different things and they are all delicious! In no particular order:
Chatime is one of the largest global tea houses there. They started out in 2005 and they are going strong with their purple topped cups. Their most popular seller is pearl milk tea and it’s an excellent example of a classic boba milk tea: creamy and sweet with soft and chewy pearls. They’re also known for their QQ mix, which is pearls + coconut jelly. Each of their stores will have a top 10 drinks selection which can help you see what’s popular where you live. I personally love their roasted milk with pearls and pudding, half sweet, half ice.
Coco Fresh Tea & Juice
Another brand started in Taiwan, Coco Fresh Tea & Juice might be the most well known boba brand around with other 4500 locations worldwide. The have a cute blob as their logo and they’re known for their fresh squeezed juices and fruit teas. They have cloud cream toppings and their combination toppings 2 ladies (pudding and pearls) or 3 guys (pearls, pudding, and grass jelly) are super popular.
Gong Cha, again out of Taiwan, tries to bring a more upscale, high-end feeling to boba. They use premium teas and you can really taste the flavor difference. Gong Cha has locations in the US, Canada, and Australia and they are one of my favorite bubble tea shops. They always have fun seasonal drinks that are incredibly pretty and delicious and their royal milk tea is creamy with a huge fragrant tea flavor. They have a ton of interesting toppings like white pearls, basil seeds, and ai-yu jelly as well as oreo and regular milk foam.
Happy Lemon focuses on freshly squeezed juices and natural sweeteners. They’re known for their salted cheese foam series which is similar to a liquid cheese cake that’s poured on top of their regular menu items. Their Yakult (Japanese yogurt) drinks are very popular and they also have delicious made to order bubble waffles [https://iamafoodblog.com/make-bubble-waffle-ice-cream-cones-at-home-its-the-best-way-to-eat-ice-cream-this-summer/](https://iamafoodblog.com/make-bubble-waffle-ice-cream-cones-at-home-its-the-best-way-to-eat-ice-cream-this-summer/)
Tiger Sugar’s signature drink is their brown sugar pearl milk and it’s delicious. You’ve probably seen Tiger Sugar on your Instagram feed because they went viral a couple of years ago and it’s thanks to them that we have the brown sugar boba trend. Brown sugar boba is sweetened with brown sugar and has a deep caramel flavor. The streaks of brown sugar against the cup contrast with milk or tea make it look like tiger stripes. Most boba shops now offer brown sugar boba – give it a try, they have a deeper, more caramel flavor.
An American chain based out of San Francisco, Boba Guys focuses on high quality ingredients. They brew real tea, use local organic milk, and make house made syrups. Boba Guys make their boba in America at their very own pearl factory. They have a boba kit which means even if you don’t live anywhere near a Boba Guys, you can try their boba at home. I love their drinks and whenever I’m near one, I can’t resist. More about Boba Guys here.
My go to boba order
My go to order at any new boba shop is their classic milk tea with pearls, half sweet, half ice. It’s an excellent way to judge a shop – if they do it right, then you know that the more interesting creative orders have a chance of being good too. The tea should have a strong essence, the sweetness and ice should be moderate, and the pearls should be slightly warm, bouncy, and chewy.
My all time favorite boba that I have had in my life
Chun Shui Tang
These guys are the originators of classic boba milk tea and they are my absolute FAVORITE. They don’t have a lot of overseas locations and the first time I had one was in Japan. There was a long but quick moving line and because I am not the most proficient at Japanese I just got the classic pearl milk tea without any modifications. The tea was just the right amount of sweet and creamy, the ice was crushed and crunchy and the pearls were small and chewy. It was so good. I might have been because I was thirsty and hot but man, that boba just hit different. I haven’t been back to a Chun Shui Tang since because I’m afraid to ruin the memory.
This is a super aesthetic Taiwanese tea shop that offers really premium (and expensive) teas. They have a cute series in bottles as well as teas in cups. As I wanted to say that it was a gimmick that was over priced, I REALLY liked them. I had the black milk tea latte with grass jelly and the grass jelly was soft and delicious and the milk tea was not too sweet and had plenty of black tea flavor. The black milk tea with a creme brûlée foam (lite sugar) and gold pearls is my ultimate boba dream drink. Definitely one of my top bobas of all time. The cream be brûlée foam topping was rich and creamy and the tea and the gold pearls matched perfectly. I’m dreaming of one right now.
Ben Gong’s Tea
Tiny tea cubes are Ben Gong’s signature. Think black tea set with gelatin and cut into tiny cubes. I love their tea cubes and their brown sugar boba but I wish their drinks had a more tea forward flavor. Depending on the order sometimes they’re more milk than tea with milk. I think it depends on the location because some have really good brewed tea and some are lighter in flavor. But when it’s done right, it’s SO GOOD.
Chun Fun How
Another one of my favorite tea shops! They have beautiful cups and their drinks are flavorful and the toppings are chewy and fresh. Every drink I’ve tried from them is delicious. Their pearl oolong milk tea is one of the best milk teas I’ve tried. I also LOVE their lychee jade tea with aloe vera. It’s one of their best sellers and it’s refreshing delicate and the little chunks of aloe vera are jelly and QQ. I haven’t tried their sweet potato drinks but that’s next on my list because they’re one of the few shops that does fresh sweet potato.
Boba must dos
- Get toppings! The whole point of boba is the toppings. It’s the fun in having something to drink and chew at the same time. If you get boba without any toppings are you even having boba at all? If you’re not a huge fan of pearls at least try a foam topping or salted cheese, they add an extra dimension of flavor.
- Don’t wait too long to drink it. Boba is best fresh. Like right when you get it. Some shops have warm pearls and the contrast between warm pearls and a cold drink is a match made in heaven. Boba doesn’t keep well so don’t even think of getting it in the morning and saving it.
- Half and half cups. Some shops have half and half cups and while they tend to be a bit pricier, it’s a great way to try out two flavors.
Do you guys have any favorite boba chains? Lots of local boba shops are incredible menus as well. Let me know in comments what your go-to boba is!