Drink Think: Tea Balls

by David Volk
For TekBug

I believe a great man of letters once said, "There’s not a man, woman or child alive today who doesn’t love a tasty beverage."

Okay, okay, so David Letterman coined the phrase, but I believe truer words were never spoken. While I don’t know what was in the coffee cup he hefted to his lips as he said it, I do know there aren’t many beverages tastier than a good bubble tea—especially when you’ve had your fill of hot teas, brownie fraps and half-caf, double tall, skinny mocha lattes with extra foam.

No, "bubble tea" is not what you get when you drop a straw into your cup of Earl Grey and blow. Instead, it is a bizarre beverage from Taiwan that is refreshing and fun to drink—provided you don’t sip too fast. This concoction contains tea, milk and a generous helping of sugar, but it takes its name from the froth floating at the top and the black tapioca balls at the bottom of the glass, accessible through a wide-mouthed straw. If you suck too fast, though, you’ll end up feeling like someone hit you in the back of the throat with a pebble from a slingshot—and that’s not fun. Nor is it tasty.

You wouldn’t be the first to think bubble tea sounds like a drink only a teen-ager could love. In the early ‘90s, an enterprising Taiwanese tea salesman approached the teen market first when he dreamed up "boba tea." As the story goes, he was trying to differentiate himself from all the other tea vendors who sold red tea to students headed home from school. So he added a little juice and mixed it all together in a cocktail shaker, creating a frothy, bubbly beverage. Although there’s no final say on who decided to add chewy tapioca balls, the drink has crossed the Pacific Ocean and has become popular with people of all ages.

I’ve always thought of tapioca as that white, stringy revolting pudding my dad ate when I was growing up, but that didn’t stop me from screwing up my courage, heading to the University District and trying bubble tea. I’m not saying I went with a closed mind, but I was fully prepared to be good-naturedly disgusted. The big challenge would be how to tactfully taste it quickly, then discreetly spit it out without yelling, "Ugh, that’s awful."

That’s why I brought my wife, Cindy, as my lookout. Once we walked into Pochi’s Tea Station (5014 University Way NE), I understood what old-school Maxwell House coffee drinkers feel when they walk into Starbucks for the first time. The array of menu options is truly stunning. Hot or cold? Shake or smoothie? Milk tea or chai? What flavor? Would you like fries with that? There were so many choices that we finally threw ourselves on the mercy of the drink-makers themselves and ended up with a green milk tea and a taro flavored shake. Fortunately, we didn’t have to choose a size. The drink comes in only one: a big-ass 24-ouncer.

The green milk tea was smooth, refreshing and chai-like in its sweetness, but the chewy black tapioca bubbles took some getting used to. I so enjoyed the tea’s taste that I sipped faster than I should have, so several hit me in the back of the throat before I realized what was happening. But when I tasted an actual bubble, I was surprised to discover it was chewy and sweet, with the texture and consistency of an under-sweetened Gummy Bear.

Cindy’s drink was pleasant with a crunchy aftertaste we couldn’t describe. Although she liked the bubbles, I found them as irritating as candy-coated chunks of gum in bubble gum ice cream and raisins in cinnamon rolls. It’s a textural thing.

I still recommend trying at least one, which is why we tried several more. A week later, we visited Gingko Tea (4343 University Way NE), where Cindy had a strawberry smoothie and I had a vanilla tea. Mine was perfect, but hers tasted chalky and still had chunks of ice floating in it. We found the best bubble tea, a hot almond milk tea, at Yunnie Bubble Tea (4511 University Way). It was hot, sweet and smooth, and the temperature of the drink had softened the tapioca so much the little buttons melted in my mouth.

I’m still a frappuccino man, but now that I’ve had bubble tea, I think Starbucks can learn a few things from its competitors—like the importance of providing bigger straws for the brownie fraps so they won’t clog up mid-sip.