Tapioca pearls cluster at the bottom of a green apple Calpis green tea. (photo by Lauren Kramer)
It’s a typical summer barbeque scene: parents clustered in groups catching up on each other’s lives and kids running amok in games of barefoot tag, stopping only briefly for refreshments as afternoon turns to evening. When they refuel, though, it’s bubble tea they’re reaching for, that sweet, sticky, frothy beverage that’s slurped through giant straws. Part meal, with its candy-like tapioca beans, and part beverage, bubble tea has become a natural choice for many kids and preteens. A mixture of fruit juice and tea, it’s a drink that’s both a plaything and a thirst quencher. What’s more, it delivers an explosion of flavor, an instant sugar rush that’s as fun to drink as it is to look at.
“At bubble tea shops, young people are ordering their bubble tea the way coffee aficionados order their Starbucks,” said Julia Montague, a bubble tea fan and my companion on this hot afternoon. We’ve just taken a seat at Zephyr Tea House in Richmond (7911 Alderbridge Way), positioning our massive pink straws into a shared glass of taro milk tea. A burst of taste that can only be likened to a gummy candy milkshake hits our palates, an energizing, refreshing encounter that brings us right back to childhood.
Enter a bubble tea shop and you have to be decisive. First choice is the type of tea – black, green, milk or herbal? Each category has some 30 varieties, from kiwi black to mango green, pudding milk to sesame and hazelnut milk. Once you’ve narrowed that down, you choose the bubbles you want: pearl, otherwise known as tapioca balls, coconut jelly, pudding, grass jelly or coffee jelly. Finally, you determine if you want your tea hot or cold.
We order a tall glass of Zephyr milk tea next, the house special that comes with coffee jelly, black sugar, creamer and black tea, served with whipped cream on top. The mocha-colored drink is punctuated by balls of black jelly, delivering another major whammy of sweetness – one that almost demands a food accompaniment, just to neutralize the sugar.
Bubble tea made its first inauspicious appearance in Taiwan in the 1980s, when some food entrepreneur mixed the light taste of tea with fruit flavoring, shaking it up to even out the flavors and naming it for the bubbles that would form when the mixture was combined. Later, someone reinforced the name by adding tapioca balls to the drink, as well as a large straw through which they could be consumed.
The beverage became a hit, particularly with younger folk. Bubble tea shops started popping up all over Asia and in parts of North America heavily populated by Asian immigrants, like Vancouver and Richmond, where you don’t have to search hard to find bubble tea and, when you find it, it’s eye candy in the purest form.
At the Pearl Castle Café (3779 Sexsmith Rd.), which is not far from Zephyr, the bubble tea menu features an entire page of listings for each of the black, green, milk and green milk tea. Between innovative flavors like green apple Calpis green tea, tangerine green tea with dried plum, caramel green milk tea and wheat germ green milk tea, it’s hard to narrow it down.
Our Calpis tea arrives looking like a piece of art. A layer of beer-like foam sits on the top, the drink’s bright green hue contrasts with the black tapioca pearls that cluster at the bottom. For contrast, we try hot jasmine green tea, whose soothing, subtle jasmine flavor is combined with sweetened condensed milk, providing another major sugar rush.
We exit the restaurant fired up with energy and ready to take on the day, a heady mixture of calories and sugar coursing through us as four tall glasses of bubble tea work their way through our bodies. One thing’s for sure: this is no end-of-the-day soother.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.