What is bubble tea and how to DYI at home?

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

What is bubble tea and how has it become this famous #instaworthy drink with lots of shops and cafes offering bubble tea around the world?

Refreshing organic homemade loose leaf bubble tea surrounded by green leaves.
Refreshing fruit based homemade bubble tea.

Whilst we aren’t big bubble tea drinkers ourselves, we thought we would write about it for two reasons:

  • It’s worth clarifying what the similarities and differences are between a bubble tea and a traditional tea drinking (there are some misconceptions)

  • Anything that is tea related or adjacent is an interesting topic for us to talk about anyway, so we may as well :)

So let’s have a look at what bubble tea is and isn’t and what’s the history behind it.

What makes bubble tea so popular?

If you haven’t already, walk around the city in Sydney or Melbourne and try spotting a bubble tea shop / cafe. This should be a fairly easy task - if you walk on George Street alone, you will walk past at least a dozen little shops focusing solely on bubble tea. But first things first - what is bubble tea?

Bubble tea is a sweet drink served cold that can be tea based (but is not limited to) and has signature little pearl balls made of tapioca. Little tapioca balls are relatively flavourless but after being soaked in brown sugar stripes and combined with a drink they become quite sweet. And that’s what usually gets people in.

It’s worth noting that those little pearls are added predominantly for their texture, not flavour per se. They are chewy, soft and a little bit sticky at the same time. On a different note, a lot of chewy, gelatinous Asian style desserts can be made with cassava root flour. When formed into little round marble balls and cooked – they are known as 'boba pearls'. They can be made from scratch at home or bought ready (usually sold dry, and then cooked in water until soft). These iconic balls turn an act of drinking into a rather interesting experience.

Despite its name, bubble tea offered in most places has often very little in common with actual tea drinking. Firstly, it's almost always consumed cold (so closer to an iced tea, if anything). Secondly, it's definitely common not to use any tea at all in bubble tea yet still call it 'tea'. It could be made from an instant tea powder or artificial flavours. It's more about the taste rather than what it is made of. A popular recipe includes sweet milky or fruity liquid.

What’s the history of bubble tea?

This slightly mysterious drink has gained popularity in Australia in the past couple of years. Experts say it really ramped up in 2017.

It originated in Taiwan in the 80s. It all started with a little tea stand where kids used to stop by, when walking back from school home. Tea sold there was sweet, refreshing and delicious. They sellers started adding flavouring to the teas that made the liquid a little less clear and changed the texture a bit - the liquid now needed to be shaken. Even when shaken, this modification resulted in forming little bubbles in the drink, which came to be known as ‘boba’ or ‘bubble tea.

In 1983 Liu Han-Chieh introduced Taiwan to tiny tapioca pearls. The new fad was to add tapioca pearls into a favourite drink. That’s the popular way of doing it that has become really iconic around the world. So famous that there are some interesting analyses about the cultural phenomenon of this seemingly unassuming drink.

Making your own bubble tea drink

There are plenty of ways to create your own DYI bubble tea drink at home (especially, if you are after a healthier, less sugary alternative and want to make the base from the actual tea without any artificial stuff).

You can either make the little pearls from scratch using tapioca flour, or you can buy pre-made boba balls ready to go (only need to be boiled). The drink can (but doesn’t have to be) be milky. These four simple steps roughly outline the process:

  1. Brew your favourite tea (black tea with additional flavours will work well / chai / or simple black with milk). Let it cool down.

  2. Add honey or sugar (if you like a little sweetness, skip if you don’t)

  3. Boil little balls and soak in brown sugar syrup for 30 minutes. Let it cool down.

  4. Add milk and ice to your liking and enjoy!

Full recipe with a step by step outline here.

For a non-milky, fruit based version:

Follow the same steps but replace black tea with fruit tea and skip the milk. You can even add a real piece of fruit if you fancy!

Key takeaways

Despite its name, bubble tea is not a typical traditional tea drinking experience. It can be a fun way of getting into tea drinking with opportunities to prepare your own bubble brew at home from healthier ingredients.

Share your thoughts under this post of jump on our Oolo forum to meet other like-minded people chatting about tea.