Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Bubble Tea

Explained by a man who really, really loves it.

You’ve seen bubble tea: that bizarre beverage served with a fat straw speared into a sealed plastic cup with brown balls at the bottom, sipped probably by a teenage Asian kid outside any of a zillion shops around Seattle. Also known as boba tea or tapioca tea, the drink originally came from Taiwan in the ’80s and has been all over the Puget Sound for a decade. But bubble tea remains a mystery to most Western types and/or adults.

About the balls: They’re tapioca. In the world of bubble tea—and it is a world, believe me—tapioca is not flavorless pudding but rather individual starchy brown spheres plumped in hot water to the size of champagne grapes, resting squishy and slightly sweet at the bottom of a 16-ounce cup of tea. Tapioca is the bubbles in bubble tea. You eat it and drink it at the same time.

The tea can be green tea, oolong tea, black tea or milk tea, which is tea cut with condensed milk and sugar—a diabetic nightmare. It can involve flavored syrups similar in concept to an Italian soda, real fruit slices and/or whole fruits pulverized into a milkshake or iceshake. There’s a universe of flavors and styles, ranging from burning-hot cake frosting to ascetic unsweet, and scientists come up with new ones all the time. You can order it without tapioca balls, but you’d be robbing yourself. You can order it with no tea at all. Bubble tea shop menus are hilarious in their complexity, with grids and sub-sections and newly-arrived items. Discussing a bubble tea shop by the taste of its drinks misses the point. It’s more about the experience.

With an open heart and a little guidance, you can stumble into any of the bubble tea hotspots in Seattle’s International District—brightly-lit places with names like Gossip, Oasis and Ambrosia—and fall into a globe-spanning saccharine dream. Gossip has private karaoke rooms in the basement open til 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Oasis has a pool table and sit-down video games from the ’80s. Ambrosia is all business: a room with some chairs. I like it best, but that’s because I am an adult. There’s a lot of overlap in what they sell, but each has flavors they claim are exclusive.

You must understand the humanistic aspect of the bubble tea shop. The scenes that happen within are neo-Norman Rockwell paintings, but instead of sipping a malt after playing stickball, today’s kids sit on fake-leather sofas and play Halo on Xbox. Asian-American students mostly, but also regular-old white and black kids, Latin, what have you. They’re all stressed in school—the exchange students perhaps most of all—and need to blow off steam. They can’t go to a bar. They don’t drink coffee. Hitting the bubble tea shop with friends offers sweet relief in more ways than one. Adults drink bubble tea, too. (I’m 29 and a snob about it. I’m thinking about opening an upscale store called Bublé Tea; don’t steal my idea.)

More adults would be into it if they knew that it can be just like traditional ice tea, but zippier. And fruitier. Ambrosia serves an avocado shake that incorporates whole avocados liquefied with ice, milk and sugar, yielding a mild flavor that stretches horizontally in your mouth, coating and relaxing. It’s a very user-friendly drink, despite it being sickly green and having an entire avocado in it.

A week ago at Ambrosia, I had a hot jasmine milk tea with tapioca–doesn’t that sound wonderful? The smell was stronger than the flavor and the drink was blazing hot, ideal for a freezing winter stroll.

Recently I had an experience that completely revitalized bubble tea for me again. An impulse buy at Gossip: grapefruit green tea.

“Is it flavored with grapefruit syrup?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the 20-something cashier.

“No,” corrected his same-aged coworker. “Grapefruit meat.”

What I got was no-sugar green tea, iced, with sectioned grapefruit slices unraveling into those fleshy juice-sacs that citrus fruits are made of. Incredible! Like a regular iced green tea but with a snowglobe of grapefruit happening inside. Definitely on my short list of bubble teas right now, along with lemon-oolong, kumquat-black and a few more. It’s a long short list.

619 S. King St. (206) 623-9028

651 S. King St. (206) 624-5402

519 6th Ave. S. (206) 447-8098

Photo by Nate Watters.