Drinks

how do boba shops make their milk tea

Bubble tea shops in the United States and Canada make their milk tea by steeping a large amount of black or green tea leaves in hot water. The leaves are then strained out and sweetened with sugar, usually honey or agave

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How do boba shops make their milk tea

Bubble tea or boba is the latest trendy beverage to take the world by storm. Everyone is loving it – but what if you can’t find any shops nearby? Or what if you are sceptical of the ready to make ones available in stores?

Have no fear! This definitive guide will tell you about everything you need to know about this delicious drink and even how to make it at home!

Reading: how do boba shops make their milk tea

Jump to:

  • What is Bubble Tea?
  • Why make it at home?
  • Tea
  • Tapioca pearls
  • Milk
  • Sweetener
  • Ice
  • Golden ratio
  • Calories
  • How do I make bubble tea?
  • Can you prepare beforehand?
  • Variations
  • How to Make Bubble Tea | Easy Boba Tea Recipe
  • Sustainability

What is Bubble Tea?

Bubble tea is a concoction between black tea, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls. If by some stroke of bad luck you have never had or heard of it, this brilliant beverage is an Asian twist on the traditional drink.

Historical Origin

There is no single confirmed story as to how this beverage came to be. All the stories about the drink and the founder do share some similarities. They are all about teahouses in Taiwan during the 1980s.

All the stories likely come from companies trying to capitalize on the success of bubble tea. It is also possible that they all came up with this idea in parallel, with no knowledge of the others. Either way, the true story of the drink’s origin may be lost to the ages. Or to the dozens of warring companies!

Nonetheless, the inspiration behind this beloved drink is easy to identify. Many classic summer Taiwanese snacks (such as shaved ice) often use tapioca pearls. Meanwhile, shops in Taiwan have long been serving cold tea with milk and sugar. Therefore, one might even say, the marriage of the two was inevitable.

Diverse Varieties

The varieties of bubble tea are endless, and often do not even include tea! A few of these are fruit juices, fruit milk, coffee, and salted cream. Along with these, there are several toppings besides tapioca pearls that can be used.

Some of the classic toppings include sago, taro balls, egg pudding, popping pearls, crystal pearls (agar boba), grass jelly and coffee jelly.

Read our comprehensive boba flavours and toppings list for more information!

Why make it at home?

You might be wondering why you should make bubble tea at home. After all, there are dozens of vendors in Southeast Asia, and many chains in North America and Europe. Why would you need to make it at home? Well, there are many good reasons to do so!

For one, store-bought bubble tea may contain many harmful ingredients, such as hydrogenated palm oil and dangerous chemical sweeteners. Even traces of chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have been found in some store-bought boba tea.

Another reason is saving money! Making boba pearls and the drink as a whole at home is much cheaper than buying them from shops.

In addition, homemade tapioca pearl drinks can be more versatile in flavour and type than those bought from shops.

However, we think that the most convincing reason is that you can control the calorie count that is in your cup of boba drink. When you are your own ‘bobarista’ of your bubble tea drink, then you can fine-tune the ingredients and their amounts to best fit your taste buds, but also your current diet plans!

We at Honest Food Talks think that homemade is better than store-bought, which is why we have written this ultimate guide!

Tea

The two main components of bubble tea are of course the tapioca pearls and the tea. We decided to start with this first since it is the foundation of the drink, while the pearls are the topping. A well-brewed beverage is essential for a delicious drink!

You can easily find the most common types used by shops in boba drinks in stores or bought online. Some of these specific types used are Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, and Ceylon.

Shops will rarely use green tea (such as matcha) as a bubble tea base but can be a refreshing alternative to milky, sugary caffeine-filled drinks. The most common green teas are matcha, hojicha, and jasmine.

Quality

Many boba shops don’t focus on the quality of the infusion itself. They use blends which is cheap in bulk and forgiving in terms of brew time, temperature, and reheating. For this reason, the same choices are excellent for beginners too. These are typically Earl Grey and Assam tea blends.

If your palate is more refined (or you are a connoisseur), you might enjoy using your favourite blend rather than the ones mentioned. All blends taste excellent in bubble tea!

We have included instructions on how to brew Assam and Earl Grey within this recipe. In case you want to make other types of teas, follow the instructions included with the leaf blend.

Brewing

Generally speaking, a longer steep will result in a more flavorful brew. Usually, you should brew black teas at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit (95 degrees Celsius). The specific temperature depends on the type of blend used.

Warm Brew

Warm brewing is the most common method of preparing tea for bubble tea. Although many would assume that it is simply a matter of pouring boiling hot water over some tea bags or leaves, there are some pointers to bear in mind.

For a lot of blends such as Earl Grey or Assam tea, the ideal temperature to steep tea is at 210 degrees Fahrenheit (98 degrees Celsius). Anything hotter may cause some disintegration of the leaves and ruin their taste.

If using tea bags, prepare a mug or vessel with them placed so that their labels hang out. If using loose-leaf, prepare a pot by rinsing it (inside and out) in warm water. Then add the loose leaves to the pot.

How to Warm Brew Tea

  1. Boil water to around 210 degrees Fahrenheit (98 degrees Celsius). Once the water has reached the desired temperature, pour it into the vessel with leaves or into the pot.
  2. Let it steep for five minutes before straining the tea bags or leaves. It is now ready to drink or to be used for preparing bubble tea.

Cold Brew

A great alternative to normal brewing, if you don’t enjoy the bitterness or tannin-rich flavour, is cold brewing (or Japanese mizudashi). This type of cold brew is similar to that of coffee. You put leaves in the water at a specific temperature for some time.

We have included the instructions for this in our recipe below. There is also a special Japanese ice brewing method called koridashi. This method is not commonly used for drinks with milk and sugar. However, it can be a refreshing twist on normal black or green tea.

The cold brew method is uncommon when it comes to any bubble tea recipe. However, the rarity of this method just means more opportunities for more creative boba drink spins!

How to Cold Brew Tea

  1. Add the tea bags or loose leaves to a large pitcher which fits inside the refrigerator.
  2. Let it brew for around 12 hours inside the fridge (this works best overnight). This will give a sweeter, less caffeinated brew.
  3. Once this has brewed, strain out the used leaves or bags. The infusion is now ready to drink.

Other than tea

Tea aside, some other “foundational” liquids can have boba pearls added to them. Although not using this means that your drink is technically not bubble tea, it is still delicious!

Some of these drinks include coffee, cocoa, fresh milk (with fruit purees or juices mixed in), and fruit drinks. One of the most popular alternative drinks which contain boba is strawberry milk when strawberries are in season. Taro fresh milk is also rising in popularity in many boba stores.

Read more: best fruits for smoothies for weight loss

You can even use black or green tea without mixing in milk or sugar. The sky’s the limit!

Tapioca pearls

This is what distinguishes bubble tea from other forms of milk tea (like teh tarik or chai). You can buy these online or make them from scratch using tapioca starch among some other ingredients.

Making tapioca pearls (also called boba) at home saves money and lets you customize their flavour. On the other hand, it is more convenient to buy them online.

In our top 10 tapioca brands to use, one of our strong favourites is Wu Fu Yuan because of how quick their bubble tea pearls cook. They also have a good variety of instant boba toppings available too.

If you fancy making these yourself, we at Honest Food Talks has covered in-depth how to make bubble tea pearls at home. You can store both homemade and store-bought tapioca pearls for an extended period if uncooked.

Both of these do require a long cooking time, so consider other toppings if you do not have the time.

As mentioned above, besides tapioca pearls, there are a number of other toppings that you can add to bubble tea. Some other toppings include coconut jelly, adzuki beans, oats and aiyu jelly. We will not be including how to make these in this recipe.

Milk

Classic bubble tea usually uses whole cow’s milk. Cheaper stores use milk powder mixed with water. Soy milk and condensed milk are both popular options in Southeast Asia.

In Europe and the US, many other non-dairy milk alternatives can be found. These include almond milk, oat milk and more. Skim milk isn’t as rich as whole milk. Therefore skim milk will be diluted with added ice.

The main difference between dairy and non-dairy milk is mostly their taste. All of the milk mentioned above have distinct and varying tastes which cannot really be described without sounding like a wine taster.

If you are vegan, lactose intolerant, feel free to use soy milk. None of these milk types will make or break your bubble tea. However, take note that non-dairy milk tends to be thinner than dairy. Therefore you might want to adjust the amount of ice used.

If you are looking to make aesthetically pleasant boba drinks for social media with a distinct layering of the milk, tea and boba, then you may want to use heavy cream as an alternative. The thickness of the cream will help create layers and not mix with the other liquids so quickly.

Sweetener

Another key component of this sweet beverage is none other than its sweetener. Just by changing the type of sweetener used, the taste profile of the beverage may completely change.

A good example is this Japanese bubble tea drink which gets its unique palate from using Okinawan kokuto black sugar.

In this section, we will go over the details of what kind of sweetener you should choose to match with the other ingredients of your boba drink.

Simple Syrup

The most common sweetener you will find used in bubble tea is simple syrup. This is because sugar cannot be dissolved in cold liquids.

Simple syrup is white sugar and water mixed together. It is a fundamental sweetener that has no other flavour besides sweetness. Simple syrup is also easy to make at home.

If you want to make a classic boba that tastes like it is from the shops, then this is your best bet. We’ve included the exact quantities which go into the simple syrup within the recipe below.

Brown Sugar

Another excellent sweetener is brown sugar. Cane sugar is also similar to brown sugar for our purposes. Brown sugar has a stronger caramel flavour than white sugar. As a result, this is usually not used when the drink contains tea. Furthermore, shops will usually feature brown sugar as the star of the drink and only add it to plain fresh milk.

Shops will add boba pearls and milk to a cup striped with brown sugar syrup. This is called tiger boba or tiger bubble tea. If your boba tea’s flavour isn’t as important to you as the sweetness, this is the sweetener we recommend. It has the perfect balance of present flavour and unobtrusive sweetness.

However, note that brown sugar and cane sugar are slightly less sweet than white sugar. So make sure you adjust your ratios accordingly.

Others

Finally, shops will use other sweeteners such as honey and fructose in drinks that feature fruits since their notes work well together.

However, these are sweeteners are specialized. Honey is widely available but you will need a large amount to achieve the same taste. For this reason, we don’t recommend these sweeteners for home cooking. Stick with white sugar or brown sugar for ease and low costs.

If your bubble tea doesn’t taste sweet enough on its own, don’t add more sweetener straight away. This is because the tapioca pearls in syrup will add sweetness. If your drink is not sweet enough after adding boba pearls, then add more syrup.

Ice

Since the pearls themselves are cooked by boiling them, it is not possible to assemble a drink containing them without including some ice. If left to cool down naturally, the texture of the pearls will become sticky and less chewy.

If added without ice, the heat of the pearls will unpleasantly change the texture of the milk tea. Therefore, ice is a necessity when it comes to bubble tea.

Adding more ice can make your drink lighter and more voluminous. Extra ice is a great addition if you’re looking to cut calories! On the other hand, adding less ice can make your drink richer and creamier.

It can also add a nice temperature contrast between the ice at the top of the drink and the warm pearls at the bottom. In the end, the amount of ice used depends on personal preference.

We will show you the exact ratio of ice to the other ingredients in the following section.

Golden ratio

The Honest Food Talks team have done thorough research and experimentation to come up with the ratios below. Or, as we like to think, we’ve made and enjoyed a lot of boba tea at home!

We believe we’ve figured out the best starter golden ratio for all boba lovers out there!

Read more: How to make a strawberry milkshake with vanilla ice cream

Before any of our readers get too excited, we’d like to clarify something: there is no single golden ratio to make bubble tea. Everyone likes their drinks differently, so there is no single formula for the perfect cup.

Now that’s out the way, we do have a golden ratio recommendation.

Here are a few general guidelines on how to make a brew that’s right for you. The following ratios are a good starting point if you’re making bubble tea at home for the first time.

Measurements

The measurements below indicate a good ratio between tea, milk, simple syrup, ice and tapioca pearls. Each ratio adds up to a total of 3 cups (approx. 236ml each) to make one large cup serving (approx. 700 ml).

  • Strong brew that focuses on the base: 2 cups tea, ⅛ cup milk, ⅛ cup syrup, ¼ cup ice, ½ cup tapioca pearls.
  • Sweet but not so milky: 1¾ cups tea, ⅛ cup milk, ⅜ cup syrup, ¼ cup ice, ½ cup tapioca pearls.
  • Milky but not so sweet: 1¾ cups tea, ⅜ cup milk, ⅛ cup syrup, ¼ cup ice, ½ cup tapioca pearls.
  • A balanced bubble tea that is both sweet and milky: 1¾ cups tea, ¼ cup milk, ¼ cup syrup, ¼ cup ice, ½ cup tapioca pearls.
  • For a less icy drink: only add ⅛ cup ice and ½ cup tapioca pearls.
  • For a drink with more boba pearls: only add ¼ cup ice and ¾ cup tapioca pearls.

Use your own judgement when it comes to these ratios! Prioritise your taste above anything else when making this recipe. That’s the beauty of home cooking, after all!

Calories

According to our dedicated research, we found that the average large cup of boba tea contains around 460 calories. You can reduce or increase the number of calories based on the amount of sugar or boba pearls in the drink.

This is by no means a low-cal drink and you should see it as an occasional treat than a day to day drink.

One of the reasons people cook at home is for health reasons. To control the additives and calories in the food they eat. However, even the most cautiously prepared bubble teas are high in calories.

So how can you reduce the calories in your boba drink? If it’s the chewy pearls you’re after, consider adding them to fresh juice or black tea as an alternative. This is especially the case if you’re counting calories. You can also add lower amounts of milk and sugar if you like the taste of classic bubble tea, but not the calories!

New boba businesses are producing low-calorie bubble tea kits. However, they are scarce in today’s boba tea industry landscape. The best way to control calories in your drink is to make it yourself!

How do I make bubble tea?

You can make bubble tea in 5 simple steps!

  1. Make your simple syrup by combining equal parts water and sugar.
  2. Boil the tapioca pearls following instructions on the package.
  3. Brew your tea to the desired consistency.
  4. Add your syrup, ice, milk and tea into a glass
  5. Add the boba and enjoy!

For a detailed recipe with measurements, refer to our easy boba tea recipe below!

Can you prepare beforehand?

You can prepare most ingredients in advance to make the perfect boba to save time on the day.

In fact, you can make boba pearls (but not cooked) up to 6 weeks in advance. Store them in a clean, dry airtight container at room temperature for best results. If refrigerated, their texture can become harder (but this might be what you prefer!). If using store-bought boba, keep them in their original packaging.

After cooking, keep the boba in cold water or the cooking syrup to preserve the texture until adding them to the bubble tea. You can store tapioca pearls this way for about 24 hours. Any longer, your boba pearls might become soggy, so try to avoid this.

However, once you remove these from cold water, they can instantly start sticking to each other and become tougher in texture. In general, try not to cook the boba until you need them.

You can easily prepare simple syrup days in advance and refrigerate it. It is a practice that bartenders will often make syrup in bulk. Cold-brewed drinks can be stored in the fridge for up to 36 hours.

On the other hand, normally brewed beverages might become bitter if stored in the fridge for more than half a day. If put directly in the cold without cooling it down, this process could become even faster.

Variations

Black tea boba is catching on thanks to the high-calorie content of milky, sweet bubble tea. When you are making a classic boba, you can double the amount of tea used to brew in the same amount of water.

Alternatively, you can simply double the total amount of leaves being brewed. The latter, however, might result in a more diluted taste. Therefore most people prefer the former option.

Milk tea without boba is also becoming popular with the rise of bubble tea, although it has existed for much longer. Classic versions are the Oolong milk tea and Jasmine milk tea which have dominated the menu of boba shops across Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.

Other variations use different toppings rather than (or along with) tapioca pearls. These have toppings been discussed above – some include salted cream cheese, rose petals, honey boba and sweet potato balls. Other variations use fruit juice, coffee, chocolate, and even soda! The possibilities are endless!

If this is your first time, we recommend watching Hotto Japanese Cooking Youtube Channel’s video recipe. It would help you to understand the whole process of preparing a boba milk tea at home.

In his recipe, he chooses to mix his tapioca pearls with some maple syrup to add a distinct sweetness to them. In addition to that, he brewed his bubble tea with milk directly. Therefore, reducing the amount of water and creating a creamier bubble tea.

As you can see, everyone has their own creative spin of how they like to prepare their own comfort beverage. Be original and have fun with the recipe!

Sustainability

If you’re a fan of this drink, you should carry reusable tumblers and straws to shops in order to reduce your usage of single-use plastic. These straws can even be used while you are making and serving this bubble tea recipe at home.

Boba straws are wider to allow drinking the pearls along with the tea. Reusable ones are not just better for the environment but also more hygienic and stylish. Our pick for the best reusable boba straw is on Amazon.

Boba Green Make your own Kit
Boba Green’s Make-your-own Kit includes reusable straws | Order from their official site.

With the advent of the pandemic, many boba tea shops around the world have evolved to also provide boba home kits. These kits are very useful in easing the boba-making process at home.

Admirably, many of these boba tea shops recognise the need to provide more sustainable tools in their bubble tea home kits.

Friends and guests will love it if you serve these drinks topped with reusable straws. They are more cost-effective than buying single-use ones if you make them frequently. Be smart with your consumption and switch to reusable items today!

We hope you enjoyed this comprehensive guide to everything bubble tea! If you haven’t made it yet, we urge you to give it a try. It’s better than store-bought! It’s always cheaper and tastier to make trendy drinks at home. Especially during this era of lockdowns and social distancing, this is even more important. Enjoy!

Read more: How to get rid of tea stains on carpet

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