In 1999, Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute, told the San Francisco Chronicle what he thought about the future of bubble tea: “Unless you’re going to have some kind of mystical, ancient Chinese power from drinking it, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Um, sorry, Gerald. It’s crystal clear that boba didn’t fall by the wayside.
The “boba generation” encompasses Millennials (born between 1985-1997) and Generation Z (born after 1997). They helped kick start the burgeoning industry and were its driving force.
And the internet certainly helped.
When Yelp burst onto the local and national stage back in 2004, the photo-driven business-rating web service instantly gave young boba fans a dedicated space to share reviews and pics of boba shops and industry trends. And the growth of social media has mirrored the proliferation of boba businesses.
Today’s tech-savvy boba fanatics use Tik Tok videos, Snapchat and Instagram stories to post boba-related feeds while tagging their exact locations. This showcases new and burgeoning boba businesses and does wonders to put them on the (physical and digital) map.
TASTE OF ASIA
As boba continues to gain traction in physical and online spaces in the United States and the world, it has emerged as more than a drink—it’s become an important part of the cultural identity of Asian Americans.
In their 2013 music video, Chinese American brothers David and Andrew Fung called it “Bobalife.”
“Bo-oh-woah-oh-oh. We’re livin’ that boba life,” drones the catchy opening chorus. “The new drink of all the young Asians …. Make it tasty, make it tasty, You can call us the boba generation,” sing the bros.
Boba life, according to the Fungs, is a movement, and a way for Asians and the boba generation to reflect their varied cultures and the desire for political, cultural, and social recognition.
A computational media grad student who grew up just outside of Shanghai but now lives in California, J.T. Zong talks about boba’s global popularity and significance. “It originated in Asian countries initially, but people are making it everywhere. It’s an okay thing, I guess. I’m glad that I can get boba here. But it’s not as good as in China. It’s really sweet compared to home. And they use real teas in China. Better tea. They care.”
Zong says she can separate good boba from the pretenders and those just trying to make a quick buck.
The scene in Silicon Valley was initially dominated by small, family-owned businesses selling run-of-the-mill tea drinks made cheaply with simple powders and syrups, but quality has grown exponentially. While not comparable to what she is used to in Shanghai, Zong says there are finally good boba options—even in Santa Cruz County, where she goes to school.
“Boba going mainstream? I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” says 19-year-old Tani Ng, an environmental science major at UCSC. “More people are being exposed to something truly Asian. Asian culture. It’s good for parts of Asian culture to become more widespread. So, it’s not that ‘super weird’ thing that we’re into. Boba can be a gateway to other parts and aspects of Asian culture.”
Unlike traditional coffee joints, boba shops have been emerging as hangout destinations for Asian American youth, existing as a safe place for chilling on weekends and after school. For a group of adolescents living a fast-paced digital life but still sequestered in the throngs of suburbia, boba spots represent a “cultural home.”
“Boba is fun, sugary and sweet, so many teenagers and young people love it,” Ng says. “They hang out at boba shops and talk for hours. If they go to a restaurant to eat, many stop and get boba. Boba replaces the normal drinks we get in the food place, like soda.”
Like Starbucks cups, hip boba brands garner attention and business from Asian American youth, who often sport elaborately decorated bubble tea cups as accessories.
“We go out with our friends and get boba,” Ng says. “Boba spots are hangout spots. We like places that feel like ours—with cool, comfortable seating, good music and playing games and stuff.”
ON THE BUBBLE
Sometimes, it’s called “bubble tea” or “pearl milk tea.” Other times, it’s “boba tea,” “tapioca milk tea” or just plain old “boba.” The ubiquitous tapioca pearls are also called “boba,” which doesn’t help simplify things.
Boba pearls are made by adding boiling water to tapioca starch, which is then kneaded until it reaches a doughy consistency. The tapioca is then shaped into balls and added to a vat of boiling water with brown sugar for about 30 minutes. For flavored boba pearls, fruit puree or syrup is added to the tapioca starch before the kneading process. It seems simple, but high-quality boba can take years to perfect and is considered an art form similar to mastering scratch-made ramen noodles.
The “boba movement” was born in Taiwan, where tea shops are on nearly every corner. Boba shops are reviewed, chastised and criticized based on the quality of their pearls. The best boba has a “Q” or a “QQ,” which means it has an incredibly chewy consistency. It’s a good thing.
Back in the day, in its earliest form, bubble tea was a mixture of piping-hot Taiwanese black tea, syrup, condensed milk and tapioca pearls.
Boba is not tapioca pudding. The pearls in many delightful slurpable boba mixtures are made from tapioca starch, an extract of the South American cassava root. Also known as “yuca,” cassava root is cultivated by more than eight million farmers, mainly in tropical regions. It has become big business—the driving force behind scores of rural communities’ economies.
During the dreary and masked-up days of COVID-19, labor shortages, a disaster in the Suez Canal and the pervading hiccups in the global supply chain they caused, parts of the Western United States and Canada experienced a sudden and severe boba shortfall. A lot of the boba slurped in the States is imported from Asia: The drink’s most critical ingredient, tapioca starch, is grown there.
Some mainstream press even raised fears of a broader bubble tea shortage, panicking shop owners and boba addicts nationwide.
The fact that U.S. mainstream media reported on the boba shortage during the darkest times shows how much the beverage has become embedded into our consciousness. It turns out those tiny chewy balls are a big deal.
The market size of boba is predicted to increase from $2.4 billion (2019) to $4.3 billion by 2027. And boba culture continues to pick up steam. Large, multi-tentacled corporations like Peet’s Coffee, Jamba, Dunkin’ Donuts and even Del Taco have been jumping on the boba bandwagon.
Peet’s recently kicked off its “Summer of Jelly” with a small selection of boba-inspired coffee and tea beverages. Now a permanent menu option at all 270 stores, sweet, jiggly, and plant-based “Brown Sugar Jelly” can be added to any of Peet’s cold beverages. The Iced Brown Sugar Matcha Oat Latte—with a layered, creamy texture and distinctive flavor—is the menu standout.
At Jamba, the juice king is playing around with two boba options of its own. Jamba’s “Strawberry Bursting Boba” and “Sweet Tapioca Boba Pearls” are part of its two-month-old “Just Gotta Jamba” campaign aimed at the (often-elusive) Gen-Z consumer. For over 30 years, Jamba (formerly Jamba Juice) has been the king-o-juice—with stores evolving, trends fizzling out, and products coming and going.
Jamba is hyper-vigilant about catering to consumer demands. Hence, boba. Jamba’s balls are different—smaller in size—than traditional boba and can be sucked from the bottom of tall cups of fruity goodness with a traditional straw. Some Asians aren’t impressed by Jamba’s foray into the world of boba.
“Jamba is trying to jump on the boba trend. I’m not going to say to my friends, let’s go to Jamba and get a boba,” says Ng. “No, I’d go there maybe once to try it out though. It’s a freaking smoothie place. They’re capitalizing on this. They don’t care about the culture—it’s all about the money.”
Boba Bay, my go-to treat spot, represents the ongoing boba revolution. A new premium tea joint in Capitola Village, it’s the creation of Cheryl Schnaider. She reaches across the shiny, white countertop and hands me a large plastic cup with a cute little sea otter cradling a bubble tea. The scarily purple taro boba is my favorite. I grab a giant pink boba straw and puncture the thin plastic that separates myself and pure, unadulterated boba bliss with ninja-like precision.
I’m admittedly a boba newbie—just a few years in—but even I can taste the difference.
“There are two types of bubble tea: the fast-food type, like Quickly, or restaurants that serve it as a complement to their menus. The ingredients are low quality, like powders,” Schnaider says. “Then there are specialty shops that serve high-quality teas, made fresh. At other places, boba teas are pre-made, or the ingredients are cheap and gross. When I trained with a Taiwanese supplier, he used Quickly and some other chains as examples of bad boba.”
“Basic boba” is largely spurned throughout San Jose and the Silicon Valley. A few of the Valley’s early powder-based boba haunts still do good business today, but most have been supplanted by a new generation of sleek and modern stores—replacing bottled syrups and powders for premium teas, milks, fresh fruit, wild toppings, and social-media-conscious design.
Pearl Diving in Silicon Valley
More than 200 boba shops are sprinkled through Santa Clara County, from the peninsula to South County. Where to start? Here are a few popular options.
310 S 3rd St, San Jose | 408.298.9968
Often a top vote-getter in Metro’s Best of Silicon Valley reader poll, this downtown San Jose tea house has a patio where customers can enjoy tea, sandwiches, rice bowls and more.
677 Tasman Dr, Sunnyvale | 669.264.2094
In addition to fruit teas, milk teas, caffeine-free choices and specialty blends, Boba Drive offers its patrons ample seating and electrical outlets.
378 Santana Row, Suite 1115, San Jose
201 1st St., Los Altos
855 El Camino Real, Suite 120, Palo Alto
With locations in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York, this bicoastal boba chain serves up a mean strawberry matcha latte.
1055 E Brokaw Rd, Suite 40, San Jose | 408.309.5356
2323 McKee Rd, Suite 30, San Jose | 408.649.0224
Providing handcrafted drinks and made-to-order snacks since 2018.
1576 Branham Ln, San Jose | 408.622.8680
This neighborhood spot offers milk teas, smoothies, fruit teas, pho and other comestibles.
1080 Kiely Blvd, Santa Clara | 408.564.0928
Serving a wide variety of bubble tea options as well as a take-home DIY bubble tea kit.
7 Leaves Cafe
1743 Berryessa Rd, San Jose | 408.618.8401
375 Saratoga Ave, San Jose | 408.931.6555
330 E Hamilton Ave, Campbell | 408.429.8692
11111 Wolfe Rd, Cupertino | 408.982.3534
Popular among Metro readers and Redditors, this chain features boba and also offers other textural add-ons: grass jelly, aloe vera, and custard pudding.
Sunright Tea Studio
1693 N Milpitas Blvd, Milpitas
795 E El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
This Southern California outfit is making inroads in Silicon Valley. One Redditor says, “Always super refreshing and the sweetness isn’t overpowering.”
18472 Prospect Rd, Saratoga | 408.406.6780
Liked as much for its friendly vibe as its teas. One Redditor opines: “super fresh flavors and always good.”
20916 Homestead Rd, Suite F, Cupertino | 408.996.9898
271 Castro St, Mountain View | 650.969.2899
Tea Era offers specialty boba drinks, but also has bento boxes and desserts.
989 Story Rd, Suite 8018, San Jose | 408.638.7657
14554 Big Basin Way, Saratoga | 408.647.2809
Not a typical boba spot, Tea Lyfe does fusion drinks, weaving together Mexican and Vietnamese culinary notes.
22 N White Road, Suite 30, San Jose | 408.649.3931
Friendly neighborhood spot for bubble tea and more.
Westfield Oakridge | 925 Blossom Hill Rd, San Jose | 408.622.8658
10787 S Blaney Ave, Cupertino | 408.982.3902
The local outposts of this international brand consistently win praise for TP Tea’s version of tie guan yin milk tea.
2255 The Alameda, Santa Clara | 669.232.7961
A watering hole for animal lovers, pouring such libations as milk tea, lemonade, coconut water and cloudy fruit tea.
3074 El Camino Real, Santa Clara | 408.380.4348
Serving boba tea, smoothies, desserts and other drinks. According to Reddit commenters, “Their blueberry green tea is really good and the sweetness level was just about right.”
Dude… how could you miss Fantasia? Fantasia has been around forever, since the 90s, before all these new shops popped up, and their boba quality is definitely on the higher end of the spectrum.
Next, how could you miss TenRen Tea (aka. Tea Station). TenRen Teas have been serving real tea bobas also since the 90s. It’s also where we go buy our teas to make our own Pearl milk teas at home.
If you want to write about boba, you need to visit the ancestors here in the South Bay, who brought boba to California. (Even when I landed in San Diego for college in the early 2000’s, TenRen/Tea Station was the only place to get boba.)
South Bay ABC (Tawain descent) drinking boba since 1990s, at my local Taiwanese cafes that first brought boba to the Bay Area.
For those that want to visit overseas versions of the two tea house brands that invented boba around the same time…
Chun Shui Tang (Spring Water Pavilion/Haven) owns TP Tea (Cupertino has a shop) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chun_Shui_Tang
Hanlin Tea (Cupertino has one location) https://hanlintearoom.com/