Will the bubble burst?

Bubble tea. Photo: Chris Stoodley

For several years, bubble tea was more of a novelty beverage in Halifax. Those searching for the Taiwanese drink could find it at local businesses like Beaver Sailor Diner, Indochine Banh Mi, and the now-closed George’s Bubble Tea. But it wasn’t until 2016 where the trend started growing in the city. 

That year, Chatime (a Taiwanese chain with 2,500+ locations worldwide) opened on Brenton Street, just off of Spring Garden Road. Since then, the number of places selling bubble tea in Halifax has multiplied. Businesses like Swee Tea House, Top Tea, ZenQ, Hi Tea, and Presotea have opened, along with a second Chatime have opened.

Jackson Lee, a shift manager at Chatime has high hopes for the trend. “For sure there’s going to be more options for customers,” he says. “I think in general the bubble tea trend is going to be more popular.”

In its most basic form, bubble tea (AKA boba tea or pearl milk tea), consists of black tea, milk, ice, syrup, and tapioca pearls. It’s served in a tall cup with a fat straw wide enough to accommodate the chewy orbs of tapioca. Varieties are created by swapping tapioca pearls for additions like jelly or mousse. Other flavours include different fruits, chocolate, or even tiramisu.

One story claims the drink originates at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung. Its owner, Liu Han-Chieh, began serving cold tea in the early 1980s; something that only became popular among younger people. A few years later, an employee named Lin Hsiu-hui put her favourite childhood snack, tapioca pearls, into the milk tea. The rival story claims the Hanlin Tea Room, a teahouse in Tainan, first created the drink. Its owner, Tu Tsung-ho, had spotted white tapioca pearls at a market. He was inspired, taking them home to cook and mix with milk tea.

While COVID-19 has prevented many new businesses from opening in Halifax, and even more from staying open, bubble tea shops are still trying their best.

Lee says the pandemic has badly affected Chatime. Since March, Chatime has closed its dining area and is only providing takeout and delivery orders. Swee Tea House, Hi Tea, and Top Tea are also only doing takeout and delivery, sanitizing surfaces every hour, and having employees wear face masks.

Lee hopes the bubble tea trend will resume when things reopen. “There are more and more international students coming to Halifax, and most of them are from China,” Lee says. “Bubble tea is one of the most popular things in China.”

According to a survey from the Association of Atlantic Universities, 7,350 international students were enrolled for the 2019–2020 school year in Halifax’s five largest universities. This was up from 6,640 international students the previous year.

Before COVID-19, Jiaxin Hu, a Dalhousie University kinesiology student from China, says she’d get bubble tea with her friends two or three times a week. “Grabbing a cup of bubble tea and spending our time in the store was kind of like entertainment,” she says.

Even though each bubble tea store in Halifax sells essentially the same product, Hu says each store’s bubble tea tastes completely different. She says she misses Hey Tea and CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice, two of the more popular chains in China. 

While bubble tea likely continues growing in popularity, companies are exploring new flavours and ways of making it to keep the trend fresh and alive. Lee says Chatime is looking for ways to make a milk tea vegan option. Along with Chatime, other stores are experimenting with other flavours.

“You can customize your drink,” Lee says. “No matter what you’re looking for, you can always find the perfect drink you want.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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