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19 Things You Need To Know About Bubble Tea

Bubble tea 101.

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But while the bubble tea love is definitely there, a lot of people still don't know much about it.

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Bubble tea is most common in Taiwan, and even though it's become hugely popular outside of Taiwan, you can still get a lot of confused looks when you mention it.

So we spoke to Nicholas Phan, founder of Biju Bubble Tea and all-round bubble tea expert, to find out everything there is to know!

Instagram: @bijububbletea

Phan has been drinking bubble tea since he was 10 years old. That's a long time to have been drinking bubble tea.

1. Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan, and the "bubble" part of its name refers to the froth you get from shaking it.

Emma Cooke / BuzzFeed

"Bubble tea is a drink that has been around for more than 30 years," Phan says. "It was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and it’s traditionally a milk tea. It’s freshly brewed tea with milk and sugar that's been shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker – that's where the term 'bubble tea' comes from. Shaking the tea gives it a bubble froth on top of the drink, and that’s its namesake!"

2. What makes bubble tea really unique though, are the "toppings".

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"Toppings are at the bottom of the drink and you drink it with a huge straw, so bubble tea is like a mixture between a food and a drink; it’s like a drink snack.

"A lot of people when they see the toppings go 'Oh, that’s bubble tea!' so I think that’s its defining factor."

3. The original and most common "topping" is tapioca pearls.

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"Tapioca pearls are the black balls you see at the bottom of the drink. Tapioca is a starch that comes from the cassava root. It’s rolled in a ball, and we cook it fresh here – it has to be boiled and cooked and it can be flavoured with any kind of sugar or syrup you want. We flavour it with brown sugar here.

"It’s slightly sweet and slightly chewy, and has a very addictive texture. It’s something that people call 'kue kue' texture – we have a lot of foods with this kind of chewy texture, like mochi."

4. You can also now get jellies and popping boba as toppings.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"The jellies we use are actually called 'nata de coco' and are from the Philippines. They’re made from coconut water. They ferment the coconut water and this allows it to jellify, but they don’t add gelatin or anything like that – it’s vegan and gluten-free. Then they flavour it by adding juices or fruit syrups to it.

"We import our popping boba, we don’t make them. They’re filled with fruit juice or fruit puree, and they’re made through a process called spherification, which you might have seen at some fancy restaurants. It’s made by dropping acidic fruit juice into an algae cellulose calcium solution that naturally forms a skin around it."

5. You can judge how good a bubble tea shop is by the tapioca pearls.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"For me, the mark of a good bubble tea place is the tapioca pearls. Everyone has a personal preference but I like them to be quite chewy but still soft, and I like to be able to chew each pearl five or six times. If you have to chew the pearl 20 times then it’s too hard, and too chewy. If it breaks down in your mouth after two bites, then it’s probably a bit stale, or has been overcooked.

"We make our pearls fresh every two hours. The quality of the pearl is a very good gauge of whether the bubble tea shop is making things fresh and whether they care about the quality of their drink."

6. The toppings can be a choking hazard, so don't give bubble tea to young children, and be careful!

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"Choking is something first-timers might be in danger of, as they’re just not used to bubble tea. Especially in the UK, people are just not used to having their tea with bits in it! Just drinking it slowly and trying to only have three to four pieces of topping in your mouth at one time helps. Don’t go too quickly.

"You can swallow the bubble whole if you like, but it kind of defeats the purpose because they’re chewy. Also, don’t give bubble tea to children below the age of 4 years old, as the bubble could be a choking hazard for them."

If you want, you can order bubble tea without toppings.

"I think it's a bit strange, but we do get people who come in and order their tea with no toppings! We are OK with that and just make the drink a bit cheaper."

7. Classic milk tea is the original bubble tea flavour, and it's still the most popular.

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"Lots of places just call it classic milk tea; that’s generally the most popular flavour. It’s black tea with milk powder and sugar.

"We don't call ours classic milk tea though, because we don't use milk powder – we call our version Hong-Kong-style milk tea. It's classic milk tea made with evaporated milk rather than powder. We make it by brewing really strong black tea, which we then strain and cool by pulling the liquid. We then add evaporated milk in to make it extra creamy and extra thick. It's our top-selling flavour."

8. You can make classic bubble tea at home.

Instagram: @bijububbletea

"If you want to make a traditional bubble tea at home, choose a black tea – something strong like an Assam – and brew it in a teapot. Be sure to brew it for longer than you usually would. Then mix this with the a large quantity of the best quality milk you can find. Add sugar to your liking – bubble tea does have a lot of sugar traditionally but people are adding less sugar these days. Add ice, shake it in a cocktail shaker, and you have bubble tea!

"The hard part really is the tapioca pearls. It’s hard to make that at home. You buy the pearls dry (we import ours from Taiwan, but you can find them in Chinatown), then cook them to get them to the chewy texture. I’d say it usually takes about 40 minutes preparation and cooking time, which is a lot of time spent trying to make one drink at home. I’d only recommend making bubble tea yourself if you’re doing it for a big party."

9. There are now loads of different kinds of bubble tea; milk tea, ice tea, fruity milk, mousse tea, and even coconut water tea!

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"Bubble tea has evolved a lot over the last 30 years and become a very wide category. Milk tea is your most traditional type of bubble tea. This is just different types of tea with milk; it can be rooibos, jasmine, genmaicha, Assam... It’s just tea with milk and toppings added. I don’t want to stereotype, but this is what customers from Asian countries prefer to drink, because that’s what we think bubble tea is: milk tea with tapioca.

"Then you have ice tea, which tends to be more popular in the UK. Ice tea can be any tea, but with different fruit flavours added, rather than milk. Here, we add fruit nectars which are fruit juices that have been made into nectars for us.

"You can also get fruity milk teas, which are like milkshakes, but less heavy as we don’t use ice cream. It's milk or milk powder with fruit nectar or syrup added to flavour it.

"There are always new types of bubble tea being invented though. For instance, we recently invented coconut water bubble tea. It’s just pure coconut water with a bit of fruit nectar added in if you want, then you can add toppings to it."

10. If you want something really different, order mousse bubble tea.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"Mousse bubble tea is quite unique. It’s different types of pure tea at the bottom with a bit of sugar added to sweeten it. Then we top it with a whipped savoury mousse. It’s definitely for people who are more adventurous. It gives you a two-layer drink, which people tend to just mix immediately, and makes for a very rich, creamy sweet and savoury tea. We make it with a small secret ingredient, and whipping cream."

Editor's note: This is our photographer Laura's favourite bubble tea! You can find a similar thing at lots of other stores, just under different names, e.g. Happy Lemon calls its version of this Rock Salted Cheese.

11. If you want to look like a pro, there's a trick to putting your straw in your drink.

Instagram: @fatstraws

"If you just bang your straw through the plastic, it will make the tea leak out of the hole. Instead, put your thumb on the top of the straw to make an airtight seal, then with confidence stab straight down. That’s the right way to put your straw in. When someone does that you can tell they’re a pro."

12. Taro milk tea is an unexpectedly good flavour.

Instagram: @karas_food_photography

"Anyone who knows bubble tea knows taro is amazing. It’s a cult favourite among bubble tea lovers. It's made with taro root and yams, but a good way to describe the taste of it is cookies and cream. It tastes like cookies and cream."

13. If you're a first-timer, either order the classic milk tea, or if you want to play it very safe, an ice tea.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"If you’re trying bubble tea for the first time, and you want to try real bubble tea, I’d say go for the classic milk bubble tea with tapioca pearls. That’s the most traditional definition of what a bubble tea is in my eyes.

"But if you want to play it safe, everyone likes an iced peach tea or passion fruit tea, especially on a hot day. It’s so refreshing – we’ve never had anyone try and not go 'wow'."

14. Most bubble tea isn't made with fresh milk – it's made with powdered creamer.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"I grew up in Singapore, then came to the UK to study. Whenever I went back home though, I’d be sure to eat all the local cuisine I’d been missing. One time I went to a new, very popular bubble tea brand and noticed that their menu was different. Usually I’d just order a green tea bubble tea, but I saw on their menu they had two categories: milk tea and fresh milk tea. I asked them what the difference was, and they told me they used milk in the fresh milk tea. I asked what they used in the milk tea, and they said powdered creamer.

"I had no idea that all this time, bubble tea was made with powdered creamer rather than milk! I think fresh milk tea tastes much better – it’s fresher and I feel better when I’m drinking it."

15. Bubble tea is gluten-free, and can be as healthy as you want it to be.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"The general perception of bubble tea is that it’s not very healthy, as it’s traditionally made with artificial ingredients, the tea isn’t fresh, and there’s a lot of sugar used.

"We’re trying to change that here by making healthier, more natural bubble tea. We do that by making the tea fresh. Bubble tea is traditionally made by brewing a huge amount of tea in the morning and keeping it throughout the day. Tea is rich in antioxidants, but antioxidants deteriorate, so you’re not going to get as many health benefits from tea that hasn’t been brewed fresh.

"Other places also use powdered creamer, which has loads of artificial substances in it, plus vegetable oils and trans fats. Here we use organic fresh milk. We also give you the option to customise your sugar too, you can have full sugar, half sugar, or no sugar, or we can swap the sugar for honey. We also offer organic chia seeds as a topping, but all our toppings are gluten-free* too. It can be as healthy as you want it to be."

Editor’s note: Tapioca is gluten-free, as is nata de coco, so all toppings in properly made bubble tea are gluten-free, as is the tea itself.

16. Zero-calorie bubble tea does exist, but the healthiest bubble tea is a matcha bubble tea.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"Here we can also create a close-to-zero-calorie drink: pure ice tea with zero sugar and chia seeds.

"But if you want a nutritious rather than zero-calorie drink though, I’d go for a matcha bubble tea. I’d say that’s the healthiest bubble tea. Matcha has loads of health benefits; it’s like green tea x 10. Have that with no sugar and either fresh organic milk or, if you want no dairy, order it with almond milk, then top it with organic chia seeds."

17. Bubble tea over here isn't *that* different to bubble tea in Taiwan.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"To be completely honest, I think the bubble tea you get over here is very similar to the bubble tea you get in Taiwan. A lot of the brands here are from Taiwan, or use ingredients they import from Taiwan. The only difference is that Taiwanese bubble tea shops are more advanced.

"I go to Taiwan quite frequently to do research, and the last time I was there there were a few brands doing fresh milk only. One brand was only doing fresh fruit, and one brand was only doing fresh tea. They’re moving towards more natural and fresh bubble tea.

"They’ve had it for 30 to 40 years now, so they’re pros at drinking it. It’s like their coffee. When you go to Taipei, every street has at least one bubble tea place. They're now very aware of what goes in their bubble tea. Here in the UK, people are still not so aware of what bubble tea is and what goes into it."

18. The bubble tea flavours that tend to confuse most people are Thai milk tea, winter melon, and genmaicha.

Instagram: @petite

"Thai milk tea is very famous and is also made with evaporated milk. It’s traditionally a very sweet drink, but we make ours less sweet. It’s orange because in Thailand they add a tiny bit of food colouring to it. If you see an orange drink, you know it’s Thai tea. It tastes kind of vanilla-y.

"Winter melon is the most confusing drink we have, as a lot of customers come in and think they’re getting watermelon flavour when they order it. It’s actually a very traditional Chinese melon, and when you cook it, it caramelises so it’s a very smoky, caramel flavour. The opposite to watermelon!

"Genamaicha is Japanese green tea, which is green tea that’s been mixed with toasted rice. Some people call it popcorn tea, as the flavour you get at the end is a popcorn-like toasted rice flavour."

19. Drink your bubble tea as soon as you can. There's nothing like freshly shaken bubble tea!!

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

"You should drink bubble tea as soon as you can. We get a lot of people who get delivery, or take it away and drink it the next day, but I think it’s always best to drink it on the same day you order it. Especially if the drink is using fresh milk rather than powder.

"And if you haven't had bubble tea before, definitely come try it! Most people either like it, or at the very least recognise it’s a new experience. It’s a really fun way to drink tea!"

Did you know you can now get alcoholic bubble tea? Watch the video to find out more!

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