When I think about boba or bubble tea, I am instantly transported back to memories of my childhood with all of the familiar smells and tastes that come with it. As a kid, I relished the once-in-a-while sweet treat my family would enjoy exclusively on Sunday afternoons after church. I can’t recall the first time I drank boba. From the start, it has always been a favorite drink of mine regardless of the flavor and it has always had a place in my heart. The craving for the classic milk tea would cause my mouth to water and I would spend the entire week excited for Sunday to roll around. During the early 2000s in our suburban town in Georgia, there was only one Asian restaurant that sold the drink. It was tucked away in the corner of a strip mall and there were only a few boba flavors to choose from. The exclusivity of boba made it special for me and I treated it that way. I eventually left the United States for seven years to live overseas in Kenya, where I rarely had access to boba tea. When I returned to the United States in 2019, I found an entirely different boba scene.
When I google boba tea, I am directed to Yelp’s top ten rated Boba spots (which is nine more than there used to be). I feel bombarded with boba options everywhere, even in the small university town in North Carolina. Boba tea can be bought anywhere from inside random coffee shops, obscure restaurants, and convenience stores. The staple now features ambitious advertising and menus that are filled with new toppings, slushies, and tea flavors previously unknown to me. When I returned from 7 years abroad in Kenya I was confused by the boba scene. How and when did Boba tea become so popular in the United States?
The origins of Boba tea began centuries ago. Milk tea has been commonly drunk throughout Asia for centuries with origins in Tibet as early as 781AD. Europeans adopted this tradition and in the 1600s when the Dutch partially colonized Taiwan, milk tea became normalized. The Dutch also introduced tapioca, which came from the cassava root (native to South America). This began the tradition of adding tapioca pearls to different desserts. It was not until the 1980s that Boba tea officially became invented. There are varying claims to the origins of boba tea, however, the most popular claim comes from the Chun Shui Tang teahouse. After a trip to Japan and seeing consumers drink cold coffee, Liu Han-Chieh, a manager at the teahouse, got the idea to serve cold tea. In 1983, When Lin Hsiu Hui, a product development manager, proposed serving tapioca balls with cold tea, the boba tea we know now was created. An alternative claim comes from the Hanlin Teahouse in Southern Taiwan. In 1986, the owner added tapioca balls to his green tea when he was inspired by fenyuan (a desert with cut-up fruit and tapioca). At the time he called his invention pearl green tea, but later adapted the recipe for milk tea. Today Hanlin Tea House is still an international tea staple. During the early 1990s, boba tea quickly spread around the world, expanding its reach to all of Asia, becoming especially popular with young people in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and China.
In the late 1980s boba tea made its way over to the United States through Taiwanese immigrants, but it was not till the late 1990s that the first boba tea shop opened in America. The first boba tea place in the United States is said to be served by a small restaurant in a mall in Arcadia, Southern California. Cafe culture centered around coffee paved the way for drinks like boba to become mainstream. With rising franchises like Starbucks gaining popularity with youth, boba tea has also found its own niche popularity. Now there are popular boba franchises all over the United States in part because of the commodification of Asian culture. Boba tea was not the only cultural item that became popular in the early 2000s, foods like sushi, kimchi and even traditions like Lunar New Year have been adopted into American culture. Boba tea rode this larger trend of commodification and has become what we know today. Some of the largest boba tea franchises in the United States include Gong Cha, Kung Fu Tea, Tapioca Express, and 7 Leaves Cafe. These franchises and many others are catapulting the industry to be estimated at 4.3 billion USD by 2027.
Boba tea continues to be popular around the world and has been able to enter the global market beyond just Asia and the United States. In addition to the classic boba tea, many variations have been created, such as fruit-flavored teas, smoothies, and slushies. The popularity of boba tea has led to the opening of many specialized tea shops, and it has become a staple in many Asian communities, particularly in Taiwan, China, and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The versatile drink has made the drink trendy everywhere whether it be the global cheese foam or brown sugar flavors, every country can put its own twist on the tea. There is also a trend towards using higher-quality ingredients, such as premium teas and organic milk, in boba tea drinks. Overall, boba tea remains a staple in Asian countries and continues to evolve and grow in popularity.
During my hiatus in East Africa, I craved the sweet drink and chewy tapioca pearls. Whenever I went overseas, I would always make it a priority to frequent local boba stores. When I visited London for two weeks I drank hot Boba almost every day. The warmth of taro boba tea suited the overcast UK weather perfectly and their franchise had many, but not an overwhelming, amount of flavors. When I traveled to Singapore to visit family, I fell in love with boba all over again. Singapore has some of the most diverse foods in the world, and locals take pride in perfecting that craft and boba is no exception. There, I frequented Orchard road to enjoy cool herbal teas which cut through the humidity of the tropical city. Locally the drink can also be served with salted egg custard and avocado. The diversity of boba tea has truly allowed the drink to become a global phenomenon as it can be tailored to anyone that drinks it.
I craved the sweet drink and chewy tapioca pearls. Whenever I went overseas, I would always make it a priority to frequent local boba stores.
Boba has yet to gain widespread popularity in Kenya. However, it is slowly becoming more well-known, especially in larger cities like Nairobi. There are a few bubble tea shops that have opened in Kenya in recent years, but it is still not a common drink. The last time I tried boba tea in Nairobi in 2018, I was dutifully disappointed as the tapioca pearls were nothing like the ones I had come to love as a child and the tea was too sweet. Upon returning home to Nairobi at the end of 2022, I made it a goal of mine to try some of the new boba franchises that have popped up in the last couple of years.
In Nairobi, Kenya there are a couple of franchises that sell boba that was not there when I left for university in 2019. Upon returning, I had a few options to pick from all over the city. I attempted to visit two shops in Sarit Center, Westlands but found both places had closed for the evening. I ended up landing on a franchise called Boba Caffe which has four locations in and around Nairobi. The storefront I visited was on UN Avenue in Gigiri. It was snuggled in the corner of a popular market center and I ordered the classic milk tea which was just one of the countless options. I absolutely loved the service and the boba tea met my expectations. Boba Caffe is a great option that I would definitely go to again if I lived in the city again. With the growing interest in international cuisine and unique drinks, the popularity of bubble tea will grow in Kenya in the future and I hope to see more boba places the next time I visit.
The popularity of boba tea is driven by its unique flavor, texture, and versatility. I have experienced the flexibility of boba firsthand and have appreciated its now large-scale accessibility even though at times it can be overwhelming. Overall, boba tea continues to grow in popularity globally, as more and more people discover and enjoy this unique and delicious drink.
Elisabeth Kuguru is a mixed Korean Kenyan from Washington, DC. She is a senior at Wake Forest University studying sociology and bioethics. She is passionate about traveling and hopes to continue learning about different cultures.