Will the Bubble Burst? Inside Berkeley’s Boba Tea Craze

By Luke Tsai

These days, you can hardly throw a rock in Berkeley without hitting a boba shop.

Also known as “pearl milk tea” or “bubble tea,” boba tea was invented in Taiwan during the 1980s and became hugely popular throughout much of Asia before eventually making its way stateside. The most basic version of the drink consists of black tea, high-fructose corn syrup, milk, ice, and large, black tapioca balls—made from a starch extracted from cassava root—all shaken together like a cocktail, then suctioned through a jumbo-size straw, one chewy pearl at a time. (The popular English name, “boba,” comes from a transliteration of 波霸, or bōbà, which is said to be Taiwanese slang for a buxom woman’s breasts—a winking reference to the shape of the tapioca balls.)

Given Cal’s robust Asian and Asian-American student population, it’s perhaps no surprise that Berkeley was one of the early adopters of boba in the United States—the first shops popped up in the late 1990s. Now, in just a one-block radius from Bancroft and Telegraph there are no fewer than nine dedicated boba shops.

One of the features of boba is its customizability. Don’t fancy tapioca in your tea? You can opt instead for grass jelly, red beans, pudding, or lychee-flavored cubes of sweet gelatin. You can order your boba hot or cold, with or without milk; you can choose from any number of varieties of tea, or throw caution to the wind and go for a boba slushie.

The craze, if that’s what it is, shows no sign of letting up. Instead, the drink just gets more … ornate. There are shops that specialize in boba topped with salted cream cheese and some that skip the tea altogether and combine tapioca balls with fresh milk. Homegrown chains like Asha Tea House have tailored boba to fit the Bay Area’s artisanal food sensibilities, incorporating seasonal fruit purées and fastidious tea-leaf sourcing. Asha co-founder David Lau says, “I’ve always felt that our goal was to compete with third-wave coffee.”

Boba is more than just a drink, it’s a subculture. For an entire generation of tweens, teens, and twentysomethings, the boba shop has been the place to grab a snack after class, to gossip or study with friends, or to flirt with your crush. All the better if you can get your sugar fix while you’re at it.

From the Summer 2019 issue of California.
Image source: Photos courtesy of iStock, Wikimedia Commons // Collage by Leah Worthington
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