Except tea. Don't mess with the tea. From the moment it was first popularized in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), tea has been brewed almost exclusively in water and consumed hot and pure. The Europeans were the first to add milk and sugar, in the 17th century. The Americans were the first to ice it (surprisingly, a mid-20th century innovation). But for most of Asia, over the centuries, the only reassuring constant has been hot, plain tea. In Japan, the tea ceremony became a religious rite.
Bubble tea might have remained a quaint oddity, available only in Taichung, were it not for the arrival of a Japanese television crew. Liu cannot remember the show's name, but says it was a program aimed at young adults that scoured Southeast Asia in search of new things. It aired a segment featuring Liu's bubble tea and within days he was fielding calls from curious businessmen in Japan and Hong Kong. Then a Japanese QQ drink association (chewy drinks are popular enough to warrant their own trade association in Japan) held a meeting in Taiwan. Its members tried bubble tea, liked it, and brought the idea home.
By the early '90s, bubble tea was pervasive in Japan and Hong Kong. From there, international traders pushed the product into Chinatowns across North America where it flourished, partly because it was "big overseas." By the late '90s, in the cities where it had really caught on, bubble tea moved outward to non-Asian shopping areas and night-life districts. By 2000, a veritable boom was underway with bubble operations opening down such hubs as Yonge Street in Toronto.
The drink was popular partly because it was big in Asia, but also because it arrived at a peculiar moment in the history of the North American beverage industry: Throughout the second half of the 1990s, the North American palate was developing a taste for increasingly bizarre caffeinated drinks. At the start of the 1990s, Snapple gave consumers a taste for different flavors of iced tea, such as peach or raspberry, which set the stage for more complicated iced tea products, such as Arizona's Asian plum tea and Sobe's green tea with ginseng. At the same time, the frothy "mochaccino frappes" and "iced chai lattes" were being served at Starbucks and elsewhere becoming more like milkshakes or drinkable sundaes, and less like traditional coffees or teas, even Tim Hortons was introducing its own iced cappuccino, know as the IceCap, essentially a coffee slurpee. It's no coincidence that at the same time bubble tea was taking hold in North America.
Of course, there was one crucial difference between these beverages and Bubble Tea. An iced chai latte might seem like a novel idea, but its texture is consistent the whole way through. There are dozens of small oddities that make up the bubble tea experience, but surely the weirdest one of all is the alarming spectre of viscous tapioca balls or jiggly jelly squares slithering their way up the length of the wide-gauge straw toward your mouth. An anticipatory "Ew!" is written on every first-timer's face as they suck it up.
But bubble tea must break the middle of the mainstream to keep growing, some in the business are worried. Will bubble tea be the next sushi, which developed a following beyond its mid-80s modishness and became a staple feature of North American life? Or will it be the next Tamagotchi, the virtual pet that was bought by the millions in 1997 and then disappeared altogether?
Mr. James Park (Bubble Tea Supply), an importer of all products and equipment required in a bubble tea shop, from tapioca pearls, to straws to mixers, says bubble tea's breakthrough came thanks to youth market. Kids will try anything once, but often, also twice. "Now, some of my most successful clients are mall kiosks," Mr. Park says, indicating this is a good sign, as mall sales mean youth sales. "Now [malls] just move bubble tea."
The newness of the experience has carried the product until now. "The people in the bubble tea business had to find a way to keep selling in high volumes," says Mr. Park, who admits trends such as bubble tea can experience sudden death very easily. The hope is in flavoring. In the 1990s, the early popular flavors were generally fruity. Last year, coconut was the best-seller, as was cafe mocha, which is essentially coffee-flavored tea. Now tastes such as avocado have hit the market. The thinking seems to be that, if the flavors keep expanding, the newness of the experience will never wear off.