By Lydia Tan
Boba, bubble tea, pearl milk tea — call it what you may, you either love it or hate it. Head down to your nearest mall or neighbourhood store and you will likely find a bubble tea stall or two. It seems that every few months, a new bubble tea brand pops up and finds its way into our daily lives, with no sign of dying out in the near future. How has this craze managed to sustain itself for this long and continue to find favour among Singaporeans?
Where it all started
Bubble tea has its origins in Taiwan and has slowly spread to other parts of Asia. In a continent where tea is a staple drink in many cultures and is usually traditionally served hot and freshly brewed, this newfound way of drinking cold milk tea with chewy tapioca “pearls” through a thick straw was definitely a novel concept. The drink was first introduced to Singapore in 1992 but only started gaining popularity in 2001, with shops selling 800 to 1,000 cups a day.
However, the fad did not last long; by 2003, the novelty died down and many shops had to close down. Fast forward a couple years later, the trend made a comeback in 2010 as new Taiwanese chains like Gong Cha and Koi entered the Singapore market. The real peak of the trend came in 2018, as more Singaporeans were visiting Taiwan and wanted to get the real “Taiwanese experience” when they returned home.
The Three ‘Cs’
So what makes bubble tea still so popular? It relies on the 3 Cs: cheap, convenient, customisable.
We all love a good caffeine shot, and bubble tea is one of those go-to choices because of its price point which is slightly more expensive than a kopitiam, but less than a Starbucks. These days, you’ll find bubble tea stalls operating in prime locations at malls and even if the price of a bubble tea is cheap, some operators say their net profit margins range from 20-30%; Koi, for instance, made S$45 million in 2017 at a 23% margin.
Bubble tea is one of those drinks you can easily get your hands on when the cravings hit. The number of stalls popping up in every neighbourhood makes it easily accessible anywhere you are. Food delivery services like Deliveroo, foodpanda and GrabFood all report statistics that bubble tea rank highly for their most popular orders in the past year.
We all love to customise our drinks – whether it’s at Starbucks or the kopitiam. Bubble tea also caught on to this – an average bubble tea menu has over 40 flavours with numerous toppings, sugar levels, and sizes. There are even non-tea beverages like ice-blended drinks, smoothies and coffee; others focus on using high quality or more exotic teas. For Woobbee, their best-selling flavour is Herbalmint Milk Tea, made from Pei Pa Koa (yes, that cough mixture).
In this social media age, we should add another ‘C’: charm. Bubble teas aren’t supposed to just taste good, they have to look Instaworthy as well. Take for example Tiger Sugar — as soon as the famous Taiwanese bubble tea brand launched in Singapore, people were flocking there just so they can post a picture of their signature bubble tea with brown sugar streaks on social media. This was a huge free publicity, helping them spread their brand fast.
As with every trend, this bubble tea craze has its pros and cons; on one hand, the many options available leave bubble tea lovers spoiled for choice but on the other hand, the oversaturated market can make it harder for brands to differentiate themselves from competitors. Let’s not forget the fact that it’s a huge contributor to plastic waste, despite the (weak) push for reusable straws.
Let’s not forget the health impacts. While tea is a healthy drink, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone ordering tea with no sugar or pearls, which can add more than 200 calories per half-cup! Then there are other additions like syrups and sometimes cream (or ice cream). With the Singapore government going on an offensive against sugar, it’s tough to say how it’ll affect lovers of bubble tea with 100% sugar level.
Despite that, there’s no denying that bubble tea has become a social culture in itself — the drink has become a ubiquitous icon of Asian culture in the Western world (it should be noted that it’s also a huge trend in Japan over the past year). According to research firm Allied Market Research, the global bubble tea market will jump from US$1.96 billion in 2016 to reach US$3.21 billion by 2023.
Singapore is no stranger to boom-and-bust trends – just look at frozen yogurt, Rotiboy and doughnuts. The rise and fall (and rise again) of bubble tea in Singapore dates back almost three decades – but will it withstand the test of time again?