How to Drink Boba

When I was young, I consumed a piece of media – I’m being vague because I genuinely don’t remember any more than this – starring a dogmatic food critic who had published a book called How to Eat Food: A Comprehensive Guide to the Food You Should Like and the Food You Shouldn’t. Ever since, I’ve thought that this would be a fantastic title for something sufficiently tongue-in-cheek to pull it off. I don’t know anywhere near enough about food to write that, but I do drink quite a lot of bubble tea, and I’ve been told that my thoughts about it are more systematic than those of the average bear, so here goes. This is my comprehensive guide to the boba you should like and the boba you shouldn’t.

Boba backwards is abob

The first time I drank boba, at a Kung Fu Tea in Boston, I noticed the pearls before anything else. After all, they were right there in the name. They were also very different to anything I’d had before. In the culinary traditions with which I was familiar, food and drink were very carefully separated. Even soup was served with a glass of water. The idea that you could have both solids and liquids at once was strange and exciting.

This new drink was also very, very sweet. It took me an embarassingly long time to realize that the reason I always felt better after a cup of boba was that it had more sugar and caffeine in it than I should ever have been drinking in one go. Then there was the milk, which gave it a smooth texture, and finally the tea, which provided background flavor and, in the Thai case, turned the whole thing an intriguing shade of orange.

I still think that this order of priorities, starting with the pearls and working your way through to the tea, is a good way to drink your first boba, and it’s what I’d recommend if you’re coming from a perspective similar to mine. Bubble tea is a very attention-grabbing beverage. It’s got lots to mark it out as unique. Enjoy that!

It’s my experience that drinking boba this way puts the commonalities first. There isn’t always much of a difference between one place’s pearls and another’s, or one place’s sugar syrups and another’s. Behind the scenes, there are very few distributors for wholesale boba ingredients, and there certainly aren’t a lot of outlets that make their own. The advantage here is that you’ll quickly learn whether or not you like bubble tea as a drink. Some people don’t. My best friend never really got into it and I’ve given up on even convincing my mother to try it. If you don’t like the pearls or the sweetness, you’ll probably never find a boba you enjoy; if you do, you’ll probably have a pretty good time at most boba shops.

I will still do this when I’m drinking at a place I know. However, when I’m trying out somewhere new, comparing it to my current favorites, and deciding whether or not I’m going to recommend it to friends, I want an approach that focuses on the differences between one tea and another. Recently, I realized that what I do in that case is almost an exact reversal of my original priorities. Vaguely, it looks something like this:

  1. Tea

  2. Milk

  3. Flavorings

  4. Pearls

  5. Princess factor

I think of it as drinking boba backwards.

The key word in bubble tea is tea

The foundation of bubble tea is not, in my opinion, sweetness, chewiness, or smoothness. It is bitterness. That’s the main thing that marks it out from a smoothie or a candy bar: the extra edge that comes from the black tea base. All the other flavors work in harmony with this. The milk and sugar cut the bitter tea; the tea gives enough depth and interest to make the sweetened milk drinkable without making you feel overloaded.

Good boba is great, and really bad boba can be entertaining in an I-can’t-believe-I-drank-this kind of way. I take equal pride in my lists of the best and the worst places in Berkeley. The worst thing a tea can be, to me, is forgettably mediocre, and the easiest way to make it that is to skimp on the tea itself. I have drunk quite a lot of what is essentially milk with a pump of syrup, and, while I’ve never spat it out, I’ve also never thought much about it beyond “Well, now I know what they serve here.” It’s just dull. I have milk and sugar at home.

One heuristic I have found to be fairly decent is to prefer places that let you control the amount of sweetness more granularly (no pun intended). You can always ask for 100%, 50%, or 0% sweetness; many shops also offer 75% and 25%. This is a good first sign that they understand that there’s more to boba than sugar, which bodes well for the quality of their tea.

The rest of the liquid

Let me preface this section by saying that I have never had bubble tea with anything other than cow milk. I have no idea what it’s like with almond or soy milk, so, if you don’t drink cow milk, you may or may not find any of this helpful.

There are more boba places in downtown Berkeley than you can shake a wide-mouthed straw at, but there’s only one that I know of actually on the main campus in a university-owned building, and I went there a few days ago. The tea was fine, but it felt, for want of a better word, hollow. I was drinking it but it wasn’t filling my mouth as much as I was used to. After thinking about it for a while, I’m pretty sure I figured out why: it was made using either skimmed or diluted milk.

Here’s where it really does become a question of personal preference. I like my boba rich and thick. Some people might prefer it a little thinner. Interestingly enough, this doesn’t seem to be a difference that individual outlets will cater to: I’ve never seen anywhere that lets you pick your kind of milk beyond an occasional choice between animal- or plant-based. You’ll just have to find somewhere that uses milk you like and stick to it.

In my experience, the pearls aren’t as important as they could be in defining the way that boba feels in your mouth. After all, there’s a lot more liquid than solid in the cup by volume. Aqueous liquids might taste different, but they all physically behave like water, so the defining characteristic of a classic milk tea in terms of feel is the milk fat itself.

The milk is also there for flavor. When I was first introduced to boba, I certainly did not expect the crash course I got in the variety of tastes you can make by combining milk with various sugars. Again, this is a preference. I prefer to at least have the option of brown, or, better yet, burnt sugar, which add an extra layer of caramel on top of everything else, but as long as there’s neither too much nor too little of it anything will do. Sugar flavor is nice to have, and I’ll look out for it, but I personally don’t think it contributes quite as much to the drink as some other components.

Other flavorings abound, and you may or may not enjoy them. I recently tried The Alley’s Royal No. 9 blueberry syrup bubble tea, and had the distinct impression of drinking two drinks at once. The blueberry and the boba were both fine on their own, but they didn’t mix together into a coherent whole. Taro, on the other hand, I’ve enjoyed pretty much everywhere I’ve had it. I find it gives the tea more body. There are dozens of other flavorings and I’d encourage you to experiment and find what works for you.

The second key word in bubble tea is bubble

Now we finally get to the pearls. Part of the reason I’ve saved this almost for last is that there’s really not that much to say about them. They can be larger or smaller, softer or harder, sweetened or unsweetened. Sheng Kee on Telegraph Avenue uses quite sweetened pearls, which lets you get away with much less sugar in the drink itself. It helps me appreciate the flavors a little more, and provides more of a use for the pearls themselves, which, if they aren’t flavored at all, can sometimes feel like an afterthought.

Pearls are also the sources of the funniest boba accidents. Jack In The Box, who actually do sell boba now, gave me a normal-sized straw instead of a boba-sized straw, so it immediately sucked up a pearl and jammed completely. I spent five minutes blowing down both ends of it, trying to get the pearl free, before giving up. In retrospect, I should have taken this as a warning. The pearls were objectively underdone: rather than round and chewy, they were misshapen with centers that felt more like biting into a small piece of chicken than a stick of gum. Kuboba Spot, on the other hand, gave me very soft pearls which felt like they were coming apart in my mouth. There’s variety here.

Princess factor

I want to be very clear here: the word “princess” in this context is not gendered. Hank Rearden casually ordering the execution of a group of moochers might be on a different end of the princess spectrum to Rapunzel in her tower pining for her prince, but they both unquestionably give off big princess energy. Bubble tea is decadence in a cup. It’s twenty-odd ounces of fat, sugar, and candy. I drink it in part because it is one of the only things that can satiate even my sweet tooth, and, as anyone who knows me can tell you, that takes some doing.

“Princess factor” includes all of the extra ideosyncracies of a particular cup of boba that don’t fall anywhere else on the checklist. Plentea uses reusable glass jars instead of cups. Asha’s servings felt a bit small for the price. Pink Cloud had a customer sitting outside on the day I went there who had a beautiful Shiba Inu.

Bubble tea should make you feel pampered. It should make you feel like whatever kind of princess you most aspire to be. If you drink enough of it that it stops feeling a little bit special, you’re drinking way too much. Because, come on, man. Tea with sugar syrup and tapioca pearls in?

That’s just ridiculous.

Assorted extra tips

  • Boba in Berkeley should run you between $5 and $7, including the cost of the boba (which is sometimes extra). More than that and you’re being ripped off. I seem to recall that this was a decent rule in Boston too.

  • If you haven’t had boba before, you might be worried about running out of either liquid or pearls. Don’t be. Most places have figured out the proportions so that if you just push the straw all the way to the bottom and drink like a regular drink, you’ll finish the pearls just about when you finish the liquid.

  • Rest the cup on a stable surface and push the straw in in one quick motion. Anything else will spill drink everywhere. I have learned this the hard way.

  • Taiwan Professional Tea’s website specifies that you will likely be a poor choice to run one of their franchises if you were “protected” by your parents.

  • The standard amount of sugar among my friends who know these things seems to be 0% to 25%. Anything above 50% is considered very sweet. My usual order is 25%.

  • In Cantonese, the word “boba” refers both to the tea and to to oversized female-presenting secondary sexual characteristics. In my experience in the US, “boba” and “bubble tea” are used interchangably anyway. In my sister’s experience in Scotland, the lewd meaning of “boba” is sufficiently embarrassing that “bubble tea” is used exclusively. Saying “boba tea” anywhere will get you made fun of. Thanks to MW for explaining this in more detail!

  • Chris Fleming sings that boba turns him from someone who talks like the owner of a wolf sanctuary into someone who talks like the owner of a boutique children’s clothing store. I don’t quite know what to make of this but it sounds about right.

Written on February 25, 2024