A Brief History of Pearl Milk Tea

Bubble tea | © Oliver Hallmann / Flickr
Bubble tea | © Oliver Hallmann / Flickr
Photo of Ciaran McEneaney
8 January 2019

Drinking tea is a Taiwanese pastime that verges on obsession. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner there’s a variety of tea to perfectly complement any food and suit any palate. But when it comes to an afternoon drink or something to sip on while wandering through the local night market, nothing beats a pearl milk tea, Taiwan’s (unofficial) official drink.

What is pearl milk tea?

While it might sound like a rather odd shade of paint suitable for dental surgery waiting rooms, it’s actually an incredibly tasty drink that is more like a snack than a beverage. And why is that? Well, that would have something to do with the tapioca balls floating around in the bottom of the cup.

Served with an oversized straw, this drink can be any variety of tea, at any temperature. The only prerequisite is that vendors must pack the bottom half of the cup with the jelly-like pearls, or what many call bubbles.

Bubble Tea's Bubbles | © Toby Oxborrow / Flickr

Where did it come from?

Although there are several tea vendors that claim to have been the first to create this now world-famous drink, the most credible is Liu Han-Chieh of Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taichung. In the early 80s, he noted that Japanese people enjoyed drinking cold coffee and so he tried out the idea with tea. His cold teas were so popular that his business expanded and he opened several new branches throughout the city.

The bubbles or pearls arrived on the scene in 1988 when during a meeting Liu poured some tapioca balls into his iced teas. Everyone loved it, and so the well-loved drink was born.

Another popular theory is that Tu Tsong-he of the Hanlin Teahouse invented the drink on a whim. He used white tapioca balls which resembled pearls which is allegedly where the name originated.

Wherever it started, there’s no doubt that it took the Taiwanese tea industry by storm and forced many traditional vendors to adapt their menus to include this new and popular drink.

The different types

Most shops sell a straightforward green or black tea with milk and perhaps some sweetener added. But while this was and still is a popular choice, the Taiwanese sense of culinary adventure always desires something new.

These days, teashops will offer a wide variety of teas and flavors to entice their adventurous clientele. Common flavors include strawberry, honeydew melon, apple, passion fruit, mango, and many many more.

For those that aren’t too keen on tea, there are coffee versions of the drink while those that are lactose intolerant can try one of the many milk free variants.

More Bubble Tea | © Ben W / Flickr

The obsession

It’s not quite clear why this particular drink took root while so many other food and drink fads faded into obscurity. Perhaps it’s the fact that people here drink tea like other places drink water or maybe it’s because it’s an ideal snack/drink combo for people on the go.

The most likely reason though, is that it’s not just one drink but a thousand reinventions of the original. Yes, we still call it pearl milk tea but with so many variations found in so many tea shops throughout Taiwan, often the only thing they have in common is the pearls, and even those can be flavored.

Taiwan has always been a place of innovation, but it’s still incredible that such a simple thing as a cup of tea can have so many new leases of life. Next time you’re in Taiwan, make the local pearl milk tea shop your first port of call.

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