Bubble Tea Vs Tea — What’s The Difference?

Bubble tea, or boba tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, we know that much. The exact origins are a little sketchy and understandably so, given the drink’s popularity. Everyone wants to own the title of Bubble Tea Inventor. 

Two Taiwanese teahouses argue that they created the drink first. The Hanlin Tea Room in Tainan say they came up with the drink in 1986 when owner Tu Tsong-Hu, decided to add tapioca balls to black milk tea. However Lin Hsiu-hui, of the Chun Shui Tang tearoom in Taichung, insists they created the brew in 1987 by mixing tapioca balls with iced milk tea and lemon black tea. 

This origin story isn’t just a friendly quarrel. It’s a serious business. The two teahouses have even filed lawsuits against one another. Neither party has successfully been able to patent their product in their several court appearances, though, and probably never will. This quirky beverage will continue to thrive independently and maybe that’s for the best. 

Bubble tea exploded in sales and popularity in the 1990s, spreading like wildfire across East and Southeast Asia. Not only were pre-existing teahouses supplying the demand but exclusive bubble tea shops began cropping up. It eventually and successfully spread to the US, UK and Australia. 

Although black tea was originally used for bubble tea, you can now find green, oolong and white tea variations. The bubbles themselves, or tapioca pearls, have also branched out. Some teas now include fruit powders or almond jelly. Some even have red beans. 

Bubble tea is so entwined with Taiwanese culture, it is now a staple of their culinary history. There’s even a National Bubble Tea Day celebrated on April 30th. It’s now normal to see bubble tea kits on the shelves of ordinary supermarkets across the world. Of course, you can walk into any tea or coffeehouse in Taiwan and find it on the menu.

Are bubble teas healthy?

Bubbles teas aren’t really healthy. While the individual ingredients have nutritional value, that is lost when they’re mixed together with sweeteners and artificial flavours. The only true healthy part of bubble tea is the tea itself. More or less everything else is unhealthy. But that’s the risk we take for a tasty drink!

The tapioca pearls, the bubbles, are made from starch extracted from cassava root, a nutty vegetable grown in South America. Cooking them for hours with hot water and added sugar only makes matters worse, leaving these pearls with nearly 160 calories per ¼ cup serving. Your average 16-ounce bubble tea, once plied with extra syrups, clocks in at around 400 calories.

In 2012, a group of researchers at Germany’s University Hospital Aachen, found traces of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in tapioca ball samples, potential carcinogens that been shown to have adverse effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. 

Like all of life’s finer things, bubble tea is best enjoyed in moderation. Drinking one or two isn’t going to give you a heart attack right there on the shop floor, but be wary of what level of sugar you are putting into your body. At the very least, choose the healthiest tea base. 

What does bubble tea taste like?

Bubble tea tastes like most sweet and milky teas only with a fuller body, similar to some coffees. It’s not overbearingly sweet thanks to the tea counteracting the sweet and creamy profiles. Tea and coffeehouses will normally make a concentrate of tea and use it as a base for their milk teas. Depending on where you go, you’ll taste black teas, lighter jasmine or green teas. 

While the tapioca pearls on their own don’t really boast any unique flavour, they will add an extra kick after being soaked in honey, which most places will do. This is what makes them enjoyably chewy or at the very least edible. The sweetness levels will vary on the type of honey your local tea or coffeehouse uses. 

What’s the difference between bubble tea and normal tea?

Bubble tea and normal tea have more in common than it may appear. All teas are simple drinks, even bubble tea. The main difference between these two is that one uses tapioca balls and one doesn’t. Other differences include additives and sweeteners like honey, which can be taken with normal tea but usually aren’t. Both can include milk and ice, though it isn’t necessary.

The taste is certainly different, with bubble tea being far sweeter than its older, less exciting sibling. One thing that can be said for normal tea is that it boasts a lot more health benefits than the sugared-down, nutritionally-bankrupt bubble tea. Don’t expect to get many antioxidants in an average cup of boba.

Do you eat the pearls in bubble tea?

You aren’t obliged to eat the pearls in a bubble tea but you can. They’re edible and safe and usually what most attracts customers to buy the thing in the first place. The only thing you have to worry about is how you consume them. Always chew before swallowing a pearl!

Why? Unchewed pearls can take longer for your stomach to digest and may result in a painful stomach ache. Swallowing a few pearls won’t kill you but it’s best to carefully sip your bubble tea to avoid any potential hazards. 

Is bubble tea vegan-friendly?

Bubble tea can be vegan-friendly if you make it so or ask at a cafe. But as it usually comes, no. It contains a whole lot of dairy, for starters. These days, though, it’s easier to find a bubble tea made with a milk alternative than it was in the 1990s or 2000s. 

Traditional bubble tea would be made with cow’s milk, dairy cream or possibly even milk powder. Go into near enough any major tea and coffee-making outlet today and you’ll see the popularity of almond, coconut, oat and soy milk used in not just bubble tea but many others. Sometimes, honey is used to sweeten the drink, so watch out for that if you’re a vegan!

Likewise, the tapioca balls scooped into the drink for your eating please are often soaked in honey or syrup prior to even touching the tea so practise caution if this is a huge dealbreaker. The tapioca itself is fine. It’s nothing more than a starchy extract from the cassava root. 

Coloring may also be added to the balls and while usually natural, it could be artificial. A rule of thumb to follow is that anything that looks a bit too unrealistically bright should act as a red flag. To achieve such bright colors, it’s rare for mere fruits and vegetables to be used. It’s likely cochineal insects have been used!

How do you make bubble tea?

Making bubble tea is straightforward as any other tea. The only clincher is that you have to prepare tapioca balls. Sold dry, you’ll have to boil them for 30 minutes and then cool for another 30. These instructions aren’t complex but if you’re wanting a quick tea fix, it can be a pain in the backside. 

You also make to look out for the perfect texture of your tapioca balls. Too squishy and they’ll all stick together in the cup. Too hard and they’ll be impossible to chew, and that’s the whole reason people even buy bubble tea! Also, hard tapioca balls could cause harm to your teeth if you’re not expecting it. 

Like every cup of bubble tea, you’ll want to start with a scoop of tapioca pearls or balls. You’ll follow that with the tea of your choice (usually black), a big portion of ice, milk of your choice and some syrup. Mix together and voila, you have yourself one tasty, refreshing brew.

Bubble tea-making kits can be found in a lot of supermarkets nowadays, though most people tend to leave their delicious beverage in the hands of professionals in cafes. 

Josh Teal

Josh Teal is a freelance writer with wit and verve, powered by copious amounts of tea and coffee. That makes him something of an expert in all things brewing, whether it's for you or for your pets!

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