It’s a cold and wet evening and I’m walking down Newport Court in London’s Chinatown with an umbrella in hand. This compact cluster of street food and drink stalls, better known as “dessert alley”, is home to five bubble tea stalls: Cuppacha, Happy Lemon, Min Tea, Up Market, and the soon-to-be-opened Lucky Tea, all competing for customers. Despite the miserable weather, business is booming. People spill out onto the street, waiting in line for one thing and one thing only: bubble tea.
Also known as boba or pearl milk tea, bubble tea is a Taiwanese import that originated in the early 80s. The drink typically consists of a tea base, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls, served in a plastic cup and a comically fat straw to suck up the inky black globules that rest at the bottom. Despite the UK being a country of diehard tea drinkers, it wasn’t until April 2011 that Brits got onto the bubble tea bandwagon.
After discovering the drink in New York in 2005, former investment banker Assad Khan opened Bubbleology, the UK’s first standalone bubble tea stall – a science-themed shop in Soho where trained staff called “bubbleologists” wear lab coats to make drinks. Others soon followed – but not without some trepidation.
“Actually, a lot of people advised us against opening. Everyone told us it was risky selling only soft drinks among a sea of proper restaurants,” explains Emily Foo, the managing director of Cuppacha and one of the first to open a bubble tea stall in London’s Chinatown. She’s been running the franchise with her husband for the past ten years, with two more branches in Sheffield and Cricklewood. “British people are used to drinking tea, so when this Taiwanese beverage-dessert was first introduced, many accepted it and thought of it as milk tea with add-ons.”
Today, the bubble tea industry in the UK has exploded. There are over 250 stalls, and Foo tells me that Cuppacha’s main target audience is young people aged 15-30, mostly females. You can spot independent bubble tea stalls and well-established Asian franchises on almost street corners of almost every major British city, easily identifiable thanks to their colourful signage, slick branding and IG-friendly interiors.
“When I first moved to the country in 2011, the choices were really limited. There was only Bubbleology, which was a Western and overly sweet take on bubble tea, and certain Asian restaurants that offer bubble tea on their drinks menu,” says Yan Lau, a 26-year-old-Hong Kong boba enthusiast who works in London as a cancer researcher. “I couldn't find anything appealing to my Asian palette coming from Hong Kong, where there's a much better choice.”
The stratospheric rise in popularity and significance of bubble tea has already been widely covered in the US. As documented by Taiwanese-American LA Weekly journalist Clarissa Wei, the first dedicated boba shop opened in Los Angeles in the 1990s. It’s been turned into meme fodder that brings activists together and is now an important symbol of Asian-American identity.
In the UK, bubble tea is still playing catch-up. What the boba scene here does, however, is draw in a different crowd, with a far more diverse and wider appeal in the UK. From where I’m standing in Chinatown, under a sea of red lanterns blowing angrily in the wind, I see people from all walks of life: a group of teenagers in hijabis with perfectly manicured hands, taking pictures of their drinks; confused French tourists chewing tapioca pearls, and Brits trying the sweet beverage for the first time.
“The pandemic has really shifted and changed things,” explains Alex Xu, director of operations at Happy Lemon, a Taiwanese franchise with over 500 branches worldwide, including eight locations in the UK. “Previously, about 90 per cent of our customers were international Chinese students, but because of travel restrictions not all students returned. Now, more than half of our customer base are from British, Black and Asian backgrounds – we’ve tapped into a local market that wasn’t there before. There’s a newfound enthusiasm from people wanting to try new things.”
Another vital component of its popularity is the amount of control that customers have in creating their own drink. This isn’t as onerous on businesses as it seems: start-up costs are already lower compared to opening a restaurant, and there’s a lower level of skill required to make the tea. Over the years, the new breed of shops have even started to offer ever more elaborate drinks using loose leaf tea, organic sugar and milk alternatives, as well as innovative toppings like egg custard pudding, grass jelly, red beans, crushed Oreos, rose petal, gold leaf, and to much disdain, even cheese.
“You either love or hate our signature rock salted cheese flavour,” Xu laughs. “It’s actually one of our bestselling drinks, and the thick cream cheese top layer makes for quite a pleasant dessert. I think the younger generation are more fearless and educated when it comes to knowing what they want. They’re far more accepting and curious about the latest trends.”
As a British-born Chinese kid who grew up in the South Wales valleys and Hong Kong, I drank bubble tea religiously in Asia and would smuggle tapioca pearls back in my suitcase to recreate the drink at home, because there just weren’t any stalls around. Now, they’re ubiquitous outside of London – you can spot stalls on high streets, in shopping centres and around university campuses, including Pearls at Reading University and Boba Time at Cardiff University’s student union.
“I don’t see why people should have to travel hundreds of miles to get a specific item,” says Peter Wong, managing director of Chatime. “In this day and age, we should be able to have access to whatever we need or want regardless of where we live.” Wong helps run one of the world’s biggest Taiwanese bubble tea franchises – there are over 2,500 outlets in 38 countries, and over 30 locations in the UK alone.
Aside from aggressively expanding outside of London and deliberately targeting uni towns, bubble tea cafes are also hitting a sweet spot among the growing number of young people eschewing drugs and alcohol. Like the dessert cafes in places like Bradford and Manchester, it’s a place to hang out that isn't a pub or a bar. And it helps that boba is highly Instagrammable and Tiktok-friendly, too.
“I don’t really drink, but I love drinking bubble tea,” says Isabella García, a 19-year-old SOAS university student, who was born in Spain and moved to London to study. “The first time I tried bubble tea it was near my campus with friends. The chewy texture is nothing like I’ve ever had before – it’s seriously addictive.”
Is the UK going to reach critical mass with the sheer number of stalls? Wong of Chatime thinks there’s room for everyone. “At the end of the day, I think it's good to give customers more options and a little competition is always good,” he says. “More competition means more innovation and this pushes the quality and standard to be higher. It's impossible for one person or one company to really dominate the market.”
As I continue walking across Chinatown towards Shaftesbury Avenue, I spot Machi Machi, another new stall from Taiwan (it’s also Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou’s favourite), with queues snaking around the barriers. I look through the window to get a better look at its polka dot walls and the people posing in front of the neon light that says: “I love you so machi”, as staff behind the counter are using blowtorches to scorch the tops of drinks for its signature crème brûlée drink. It looks like the boba bubble isn’t going to pop anytime soon.