A curious kind of cuppa: Britain boards the bubble tea bandwagon

Bubble tea is big in Asia and the US but now this strange brew – complete with tapioca 'pearls' – is reaching the sipping point here, says Neela Debnath.

Neela Debnath
Friday 31 August 2012 11:42 BST

Despite Britain's reputation for being a nation of tea drinkers it seems that we are behind the times when it comes to a cuppa. While we have embraced herbal, green and iced varieties, tea has not really experienced the revolution that coffee has undergone.

But away from our shores, tea has had a remarkable makeover with the invention of bubble tea, a Taiwanese drink consisting of tea, ice and tapioca pearls that look like bubbles. The beverage has been around since the Eighties and already has a following across the world that spans Asia and Australia, with thousands of bubble-tea shops in the US. In Germany, McDonald's is now offering bubble tea at all of its McCafés.

No one seems to know just how bubble tea found its way across the globe, but most agree that it began with Liu Han Chieh, who first added tapioca pearls to his teas at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung. The idea quickly caught on in Taiwan, but the story goes that it was not until it featured on a Japanese TV show that it spread across Asian countries and then on to the US and Canada through the Asian communities there.

Britain has been late to board the bubble tea bandwagon but thanks to Bubbleology, a brand of bubble-tea shops created by a former investment banker, Assad Khan, we are starting to catch up. Khan discovered the drink in New York in 2005 and wanted to bring it over after seeing the dearth of bubbly tea in the UK.

He launched his first shop in London's Soho last year before opening a second one in Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge. Most recently, Bubbleology arrived in Notting Hill and Khan says the reception has been phenomenal, though "when we opened first, naturally the majority of our customers were Asian". Now, however, most of the customers are British and European women aged between 18 and 30.

As a newcomer to bubble tea, I decide to pay a visit to the latest branch to experience it for myself. There are two types of bubble tea: milk or fruit, which come in a range of flavours and can be drunk hot or cold. Bubbleology strives for authenticity and the ingredients all come from Taiwan, however the tea flavours are more exotic than the usual Asian teas.

The ethos of Bubbleology is experimentation and the combinations of bubble tea are limitless. Customers can choose the amount of sugar, milk and ice they want, and on top of this there are flavoured jellies and clear balls of fruit juice known as boboa.

The sensation of drinking bubble tea is an odd one, a mixture of eating and drinking simultaneously whereby you slurp the concoction through a fat straw before chewing on the tapioca pearls while negotiating the tea. I try the passion fruit with cucumber followed by the branch's best-selling flavour: plain Assam.

Both are deliciously refreshing but I'm not completely convinced by the tapioca pearls. Usually associated with school puddings, the tapioca in bubble tea is completely different: it has been caramelised and formed into small, flavourless pearls that share the same consistency as gummy bear sweets.

Still, the customers here seem to know what they want and are enjoying it. Cy Chan, a 16-year-old student from Hong Kong is at the store with his mother. He is drinking plain Assam and explains, "I like the tea by itself but the chewy balls add something a bit special to it." Both of them have had bubble tea before and say it tastes authentic.

Friends Justyna Szumilas and Ewa Piszczek are in their early thirties. Ewa is drinking white peach, "I like the little balls, they kind of explode in your mouth. It's quite a nice feeling. I really like those and I didn't think that tapioca can be something I will like". Justyna, who is sipping on a cup of white peach with apple, admits to coming here a couple of times a week.

For those looking to experiment with bubble tea at home there are a number of bubble-tea kits on the market. However, making it from scratch is not simple. Khan says bubble tea is a technical process. "It's like sushi – it either tastes nice or it tastes awful and there's nothing in between," he says. He only hires staff who have fully mastered the mixing process.

Along with London, a Bubbleology branch recently opened in Poland, and the company is continuing to expand into other countries, including Kuwait, Russia and Switzerland. So bubble tea – and Bubbleology – will continue to spread.

As Britain plays catch-up, what other tea trends can we look forward to? According to Alex Beckett, a senior food and drinks analyst at market researcher Mintel, there has been a strong growth in teas with health benefits such as green tea and herbal tea.

As it is younger people who are trying these new teas, perhaps the next big thing in tea will be a product related to dieting or wellbeing.

Although bubble tea is not like a conventional brew, it has caught the British imagination and is proving popular across the globe as more bubble tea outlets open up. Despite not being instantly smitten with this curious kind of cuppa, I later find myself with a surprising craving for those tapioca balls – so there's certainly something to it.

Stylish sipping

Coconut water, the juice of young coconuts, is causing such a buzz in Britain and the US that Madonna has invested $150m (£95m) in one brand, while Rihanna is the face of another. It's completely natural, thirst-quenching, refreshing and full of electrolytes, potassium and other good things. No wonder celebs like it. Cocolyte, the UK brand, is served in its husk for extra fun.

The slickly bottled Zeo, which launched in the UK earlier this summer, is clear in colour but flavoured with berries, herbs and spices and served in smart bars as an alcohol-free grown-up tipple. It also makes a decent mixer.

The UK chain Shakeaways has given milkshakes and smoothies an exotic makeover, offering 170 flavours, with trimmings from fruit and Lindt truffles to 23-carat edible gold.

The Japanese love a soft drink and have taken to the Fanta Furufuru Shaker, a sort of drinkable jelly. You shake the can vigorously before you open it and it also comes out fizzy. It is yet to catch on anywhere else.

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