A young couple pauses in the doorway of a tea shop, grocery bags in hand. With their eyes fixed on the menu, they pass through the open doors which read ‘Open till 1 a.m.,’ explaining the line that nearly stretches out the doorway.
Inside, it’s just another school night at Cha for Tea in the University Center. Students sit at lacquered amber tables, sipping bubble tea through pink, orange and green straws a half-inch in diameter. Their chatter permeates the bright yellow orbs of light shining down from the ceiling, amid the whir of a blender, the blare of stereo speakers, the chirping of the cash register tape.
‘Order up!’ cries the girl behind the cash register as she slaps down a drink order and another employee comes over to begin making it.
Behind the counter, shelves support brass teapots and large silver tea canisters. The menu displays a wide variety of tea beverages, some cloudy and creamy, others more clear and phosphorescent, with names such as Coconut Crush, Green Apple and Love at First Sight.
‘All of the drinks are handmade,’ said Diana Chu, supervisor of Cha for Tea. ‘Every single drink can be adjusted to the customer’s taste.’
She added, ‘The pearls make it more like a dessert,’ as she ladled spoonfuls of the blackish tapioca balls into clear, glimmering cups.
Co-worker Felix Daylo has noticed that the demand for pearl tea drinks has become so high that ‘when we run out, everyone gets mad.’
‘You can gulp down a soda,’ Chu said, shaking a silvery martini shaker, ‘but the pearl tea you have to drink in sips, and it makes it more enjoyable.’
Pearl tea, also referred to as ‘bubble tea’ or ‘boba,’ became popular in the 1980s in Taiwan, when tea vendors began adding tapioca balls to their drinks to appeal to a younger crowd. The pearls, which have the luster of black marbles and a soft, chewy texture, are made from a blend of brown sugar and cassava-root starch.
Recent years have seen boba’s popularity increase in the states, especially California, where young people have found the exotic drinks and unique atmospheres of boba shops appealing.
‘I like the taste and texture,’ said Jenna Tourje, a first-year international studies major.
Said second-year physics major Harry Vong, who has been drinking boba for the past three years, ‘I didn’t know about it till my cousins from Taiwan introduced it to me. It’s something different, something healthier. It’s good to have in the morning as a pick-me-up,’
‘I like the mixture of fruit and tea,’ said third-year biology major Kristoffer Nissinen between sips of his emerald-colored iced tea from Lollicup.
Fourth-year ICS major Andrew Stock has found pearl tea to be a healthy snack alternative. ‘I’ll grab it before class,’ he said. ‘It keeps me full.’
Second-year literary journalism major Ivy Ocampo thinks boba has caught on so quickly because it involves eating and drinking, a good choice for people who can’t make up their minds.
‘The pearls create an interesting party in your mouth,’ added Ocampo, smiling.
Despite this seemingly ubiquitous phenomenon, the idea of tapioca tea has not caught on with everyone.
‘They put way too much sugar in [the drinks],’ said third-year sociology major Heather Arata.
It may be hard to believe for many of you, but some find boba drinks to be disgusting.
‘I don’t do boba,’ said third-year cognitive sciences major Justin Garcia. ‘Cigarettes don’t taste good. Neither does coffee or milk tea. Anyways, the calories in each [drink] is ridiculous.’
Fourth-year biology major Phuong Phan said she stopped drinking bubble tea when she realized how much weight she was gaining from it. ‘Now I order drinks without the boba,’ Phan said.
UCI’s registered dietician, Frances O’ Neil, urged students to indulge in boba ‘only once in a while.’
‘If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t drink pearl tea,’ O’Neil said.
O’Neil added that it’s not a smart idea for students to replace meals with pearl tea and that boba can actually have the same coma-inducing effects of other high-sugar beverages. ‘There’s always that chance you’ll get a sugar rush and an hour or two later have it come crashing down,’ O’Neil said.
However, she noted that all tea beverages have catechins, antioxidants that are ‘heart-healthy and can also prevent cancer.’
The relatively rapid growth of boba shops around UCI has some students convinced that the drinks are here to stay, while others believe pearl tea is just another short-lived phenomenon.
‘It’s more of a fad,’ Tourje said. ‘It’s pricy and people like me might eventually go back to coffee for caffeine’s sake.’
‘I think it might be around. Some people have it in their culture,’ Ocampo added.
Stock believes it’s the quality of the drinks that will keep people coming back.
‘I think [boba will] be around for a while,’ Arata said. ‘It’s a novelty.’
There are several locations near campus where you can find pearl tea. As stated before, Cha for tea, a fairly new teahouse, is located in the University Center.
Tapioca Express is another popular location, located across the street from the Villa Siena apartments on Jamboree and DuPont.
If you wish to venture a little further, you can make the drive to Lollicup Tea Zone, located 10 to 15 minutes from campus on Walnut and Jeffrey.
For slightly healthier versions of the drink, try your regular flavor without milk added and see how you like it