Boba tea re-emerges and surges in popularity thanks to Gen Z

Boba tea, or ‘bubble tea’, has been around since the late 1980s in Taiwan. It spread throughout Asia before gaining popularity in the United States and across the globe. Boba tea first appeared in the US more than a decade ago, however, it seemed to be more of a niche product that was trendy ‘on the coasts’ and would ‘come and go’ in popularity. 

Perhaps boba tea’s surge in popularity today can be attributed to reinvention along with a rise in international travel to and from the Asia-Pacific region, but the real ‘driver’ is Gen Z, which has embraced the beverage, and now demand for the concoctions continues to grow globally. 

In fact, there were several boba tea companies at this year’s World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, showcasing a variety of new boba tea beverages as well as a boba-making machine from Bobacino. 

So what exactly is boba/bubble tea? Boba tea is a chilled milk tea containing large tapioca pearls, called ‘boba’, that are sipped through a wide straw. However, boba teas are also available with a fruit-flavoured juice, slushy, or smoothie base. 

Part of the growing demand for these beverages is the customisation. The base is typically either green, jasmine, or black tea, and can be enhanced with fruit flavours like mango, lychee, or peach. The drinks can be sweetened, or consumers can reduce the amount of sugar as well as request sugar-free sweeteners like stevia or agave and dairy-free options such as almond or oat milk. 

The appeal of boba teas extends beyond taste as it offers a textural experience. Thus, instead of the regular tapioca pearls, consumers may ‘texturise’ their boba tea by opting for popping boba (tapioca pearls filled with fruit juice that ‘explode’ upon chewing), lychee jellies, or aloe chunks for textural appeal. Another interesting topping is a sweetened cheese foam, which is similar to foam on a latte. 

According to a Fortune Business Report, boba tea was worth USD $2.02 billion in 2019, and by 2027, its global market share is expected to reach $3.39 billion. Per Fortune Business Insights, some of the leading boba tea companies include: Chatime Group (Taiwan, China), Bubble Tea Supply Inc. (U.S.), Quickly (Taiwan, China), Kung Fu Tea (U.S.), Tiger Sugar Korea (South Korea), Boba Loca USA Inc., and Happy Lemon (United Kingdom). 

While Asia-Pacific remains the market leader in boba tea, its popularity continues to grow in North America, with an uptick in boba cafés, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. 

This summer, Peet’s Coffee is jumping into the boba drink market with a new line of plant-based coffee and tea customised beverages featuring brown sugar jelly. The sweet and chewy jelly can be added to any cold beverage at Peet’s as a permanent menu option. It is the Emeryville, California-based chain’s first entrance into boba-inspired beverages. 

“Gen Z has brought boba to the forefront of beverage innovation and now it’s just a part of their lives,” said Patrick Main, senior beverage innovator, Peet’s Coffee. He added that with Peet’s Coffee headquartered in the Bay Area, “we have easier and earlier access to Asian culinary culture, so boba/jelly has been around a while. The time to introduce something new, fun, bouncy, to the Peet’s nationwide menu is now, and people of all ages will enjoy brown sugar jelly. Most everyone knows what brown sugar tastes like, and they enjoy the warm, satisfying aspect of the sweetener.” 

Even ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins (Canton, Massachusetts) is jumping into the boba tea game. Baskin-Robbins’ new Tiger Milk Bubble Tea is an homage to the Taiwanese milk boba tea characterised by streaks of brown sugar syrup that resemble tiger stripes when paired against a kaleidoscope of cool black tea and milk. And because it is Baskin-Robbins, the Tiger Milk Bubble Tea is topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. 

So come this National Iced Tea Day – 10 June – (approximately 75 – 80% of tea consumed in America is iced according to the Tea Association of the USA) consumers certainly have many new tea-beverages with which they can celebrate, but what to choose, what to choose… 

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