Boba has been an increasingly popular ingredient in iced tea and related beverages in the U.S. for close to a decade. The tapioca pearls usually the size of small marbles are plopped into beverages and then drunk through an oversized straw, providing a chewy textural treat that is particularly popular among young people. But boba is now being accompanied by related items such as popping bubbles, wiggly jellies, and pudding to add extra fun, different flavors, and increasingly important visual appeal.
Boba tea-focused chains such as Kung Fu Tea and Gong Cha continue to add variety to their offerings (both have peach drinks this summer, for example), while other beverage specialists are catching on to the trend.
Boba tea, also called bubble tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. It’s most frequently seen as part of milk tea, which true to its name is chilled tea with either condensed milk or powdered non-dairy creamer added — appropriate for Asian countries where many people are lactose intolerant, but also on-trend in the U.S. where many people are avoiding dairy.
Related treats — assorted fruit jellies usually solidified with agar agar, candied fruit, and other texture components such as water chestnuts — have been part of East Asian and Southeast Asian desserts for far longer. For example, the Philippine dessert halo halo, which is made with crushed ice, coconut milk and/or evaporated milk, and assorted syrups, candies and jellies, can now be seen in parts of the U.S. Thais have similar desserts, sometimes with jasmine syrup added.
Recently, popping bubbles — hollow gel pearls usually filled with fruit juice or something similar — have been added to the fun. They’re made using the “spherification” technique popularized by Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli at the height of the “molecular gastronomy” era around 20 years ago.
Both Dunkin’ and Sonic Drive-In added popping bubbles to their menus in 2021, although they have since been removed.
Caribou Coffee started testing such textural components in their beverages back in 2018 in the form of coconut coffee jellies, which it calls “bubbles.”
“We had the idea to add bubbles to our tea because of bubble tea’s global popularity,” Caribou Coffee beverage category manager Gretchen Hashemi-Rad said via email. “Bubble tea offers a unique and enjoyable drinking experience with its combination of flavors, textures, and colorful appearance, and we wanted to bring that to our guests.”
She added that boba and similar items, such as their bubbles, which are made with coconut milk, go well with traditional milk tea as well as fruit teas and matcha, “which we believed would appeal to the diverse flavor ranges of our guests.”
Caribou recently made Raspberry Green Tea with Bubbles and Frozen Matcha with Bubbles permanent additions to the menu. The raspberry drink is made with green tea, milk, and raspberry flavor and poured over ice with the coconut coffee jellies. The matcha drink is powdered green tea blended with ice, vanilla flavor, half and half and the chain’s shake mix served over the same jellies.
Peet’s Coffee went the jelly route when it came to adding texture to its drinks. Last June it added brown sugar jelly — little gelled cubes flavored with brown sugar — as a permanent addition to the menu that can be added to any iced coffee or tea for 75 cents. It also added two beverages, Brown Sugar Cold Brew Oat Latte and Iced Brown Sugar Matcha Oat Latte, as permanent additions, and it offered two limited-time offers for the summer. The Citrus Green Tea Shaker with Brown Sugar Jelly was Mighty Leaf Green Tea Tropical shaken with yuzu purée, lemonade and citrus fruit slices poured over brown sugar jelly. The Strawberry Lemon Tea Shaker with Brown with Brown Sugar Jelly used Mighty Leaf Summer Solstice black tea shaken with lemonade and strawberry purée over the jelly.
Drive-thru coffee chain The Human Bean, a 148-unit chain based in Medford, Ore., is doing a 25-store test of both traditional and bursting boba. The traditional boba is made with brown sugar and cinnamon and served in milk tea, and the bursting boba is made with mango.
Photo: The Human Bean is testing boba and popping bubbles in 25 locations.
“We’re extending our test because it performed so well,” said chief marketing officer Janie Page. Although keeping the test to 25 locations, it’s adding a pumpkin boba latte.
“Looking at what’s going on in the tea category, the growth potential ranks really high right now,” Page said. “We also know that it resonates with and attracts young customers, and can attract them during the afternoon daypart. … It’s vibrant and fun and it’s resonating with our consumers.”
Jack in the Box is also reportedly testing boba in coffee, milk tea, and in a vanilla shake.
At Gong Cha, which has 225 locations in the U.S., the boba are cooked with brown sugar every few hours, to keep them fresh, according to Missy Maio, the director of marketing for the Americas (the chain is based in Taiwan).
“It’s a chewy, kind of engaging experience, which for the younger population seems to be something super on-trend,” Maio said. “This isn’t just a drink that you get and you suck right down. It’s the experience of when you put the boba in your mouth and you experience it, and it kind of soothes you and takes you to a different place.”
The bursting bubbles are a different experience, she said — more of a mini-flavor explosion. Puddings can also be added, “and that’s more of a slurpy kind of feeling in your mouth.”
The jellies are similar to the boba, but provide a different flavor and texture contrast.
“All of them are delightful mouth experiences,” she said.
She said the boba are more popular in milk teas, and jellies and bursting bubbles tend to be added to clear tea, where you can see them and post them on social media, “and work with that big straw to get the fun things on the bottom of the cup in your mouth.”
Photo: Kung Fu Tea was founded by Taiwanese entrepreneurs and offers drinks with a variety of chewable and slurpable additions.
Kung Fu Tea, founded by Taiwanese entrepreneurs in New York City, has 368 locations and it similarly features puddings and jellies, as well as ingredients such as chia seeds. “There’s always times when you mix things together, and that’s half the fun,” said marketing manager Matt Poveromo.
He added that the chain is now opening in less urban areas, such as upstate New York, and finding success there.
He said newer customers tend to stick with boba, but regulars are increasingly experimenting with different textures, and items like aloe jelly and nata jelly, which is a fairly hard coconut-based jelly with pineapple.
Although boba and related textural drink components have Asian origins, they’re catching on elsewhere. Restaurant consultant Kenny Lao of Culinary Taskforce in Los Angeles spotted a horchata topped with Asian-seeming ingredients such as walnuts, cantaloupe, and prickly pear sorbet at Oaxacan restaurant Gish Bac.
That’s not a surprise to Poveromo, who said Kung Fu Tea is itself testing a mangonada — a Mexican drink of mango blended with chamoy — a spicy, savory, and sweet fruit-based condiment — and often the popular spice mix Tajín.
“There’s this really awesome cultural sharing between bubble tea and Taiwanese culture and the Hispanic community, particularly Mexican,” he said. “We’re now having flavors blended where you have bubble tea, but in a mango slush with all the right kind of ingredients [for a Mexican drink]. I think that’s going to be a really exciting trend.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]