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Who invented bubble tea?

Mar 01, 2019

Whether you call it bubble tea or boba, the drink has caught on around the world. But its origin remains hotly contested.

The chewy, gooey tapioca drink first took root in Taiwan in the 1980s. There are two rival chains that lay claim to coming up with the beverage: Hanlin Tea Room in Tainan and Chun Shui Tang in Taichung.

Hanlin Tea Room claims its founder, Tu Tsung-ho, created the drink in 1986 after he spotted some white tapioca pearls at a market and decided they would go well with milk tea, according to a report by the Taipei Times.

But Chun Shui Tang argues its founder, Liu Han-chieh, is the true originator. Their story goes that Liu wanted to change the way people drank tea, so he experimented with putting traditional milk tea in a cocktail shaker with ice.

Liu Han-chieh, the founder of Chun Shui Tang.
Liu Han-chieh, the founder of Chun Shui Tang. / Photo: Chun Shui Tang

“No one served chilled tea at that time,” his daughter, Angela Liu, says. “People thought we were crazy … but young people liked it very much.”

According to Liu, they started calling the drink “bubble tea” because of the thick layer of foam that formed at top of the drink after it is shaken, not because of the pearls.

(Read more: Someone thought bubble tea in pastry was a good idea)

The addition of tapioca balls, according to Liu, dates back to 1987, when her father held a competition among his staff to come up with a creative concoction.

His store manager, Lin Hsiu-hui, liked to eat 粉圆 (fenyuan), or tapioca balls, so she added them to milk tea.

“People thought we were crazy.”

Angela Liu

The marketing team decided 珍珠 (zhenzhu), or pearl, was a better-sounding name than 粉圆 (fenyuan), and thus was born 珍珠奶茶 (zhenzhunaicha), as bubble tea is known in Chinese today.

The two tea chains spent a good part of the late ’80s suing each other over who came up with the beverage, but the matter was never settled, according to the Taipei Times.

Today, both stores claim to have started the craze that has now taken over the world.

In July, Taiwanese bubble tea chain Cha Time opened a new store in front of the Louvre in Paris, easily making bubble tea one of Taiwan’s most successful exports. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen often likes to serve it to foreign dignitaries.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, right, drinks bubble tea with Honduras Vice President Ava Rossana Guevara Pinto at a National Day reception on Oct. 10, 2017 in Taipei.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, right, drinks bubble tea with Honduras Vice President Ava Rossana Guevara Pinto at a National Day reception on Oct. 10, 2017 in Taipei. / Photo: Office of the President

And boba is no longer limited to tapioca pearls, with shops offering ever creative concoctions from cheese tea to aloe jelly juice. Though no one store can lay claim to definitively coming up with bubble tea, let’s be thankful that somebody did.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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Credit

Written and Voiced by: Clarissa Wei

Animated by: Ray Ngan

Edited by: Hanley Chu

Mastered by: Victor Peña