How bubble tea went from cult novelty drink to Australian staple

Bubble tea fan and law student Maxine Rae at the Gotcha shop in Melbourne Central.
Bubble tea fan and law student Maxine Rae at the Gotcha shop in Melbourne Central. Photo: Eddie Jim

Sydney-based bubble tea fan and digital creator Adrian Widjonarko first had bubble tea nearly 20 years ago while he was in high school. He says he now consumes between three to six every week. "I think my blood is bubble tea, I love it so much," he says.

For Widjonarko, the sweet tea-based drink is a dessert and fun way to socialise with his friends. "[Bubble tea] is what you get when you've just finished dinner and you still want to chat but don't know where to go," he says. "We just buy a bubble tea and hang out and continue to chat."

Bubble tea, also known as boba, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. "Toppings" can range from cheese foam to "pearls" made from tapioca.

Adrian Widjonarko with a bubble tea at Machi Machi, in Sydney.
Adrian Widjonarko with a bubble tea at Machi Machi, in Sydney.  Photo: Janie Barrett

It has been popular in Australia's Asian community for about 20 years according to Widjonarko but it gained more mainstream traction about five to eight years ago, he says.

The sheer variety and constant creativity of brands is what continues to attract people: "There are different brands and niches, like creamy ones, fruity ones and yoghurt-based ones. There's just so much to explore."

Tour manager of Sydney's Taste Cultural Food Tours Sahar Elsemary says she includes a bubble tea stop on Taste's Chinatown tour and that the drink is especially popular with high-school students. 

The sensation of having something sweet to chew is really nice and kind of addictive.

Maxine Rae, law student

"As soon as [the students] are done with the tours, they stand in queue and start ordering their own bubble tea," she says. 

Elsemary says the popularity of bubble tea spiked in 2019 and took a sharp turn when COVID hit, but it's now almost at the same level it was before the pandemic.

Multinational bubble tea chain CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice opened its first Australian store in 2015 in Sydney, where marketing coordinator Chialing Tsou says they launched in areas with a large Asian community.

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By 2020, its popularity had widened, especially among people who tended to be more health conscious. "We started offering soy milk in replacement of cream and evolved to [include] more real fruit-based tea," Tsou says.

Sydney's Bubble Nini Tea was originally a florist but expanded to include bubble tea when the pandemic hit. Owner Lara Hung says the shop's focus is on quality and taste.

Hung formerly worked at a large bubble tea chain. She says Bubble Nini Tea requires more work because everything is made daily. "Every day we have to try [the ingredients] and adjust things depending on if the fruit is sweet or sour."

A customer waits for her bubble tea in Sydney's Chinatown.
A customer waits for her bubble tea in Sydney's Chinatown. Photo: Steven Siewert

Tsou says the appearance and novelty of the drink is important for younger demographics. "We're bringing in popping pearls to cater for the younger generations and introducing new products to keep our customers interested."

Sydney and Melbourne Gotcha Fresh Tea operations manager Terry Kong says toppings – especially black pearls – are so popular that some customers order just them alone. "They spend $8 to get all the toppings in the cup without any drink."

Co-founder of Tea-Ser Yujie Xu says the business realised there was a strong local market in Victoria's suburbs.

Maxine Rae with a dessert smorgasbord of various bobas.
Maxine Rae with a dessert smorgasbord of various bobas. Photo: Eddie Jim

"Everyone is getting into it," Xu says. "We have some stores in outer suburbs, such as Sunbury, and they're all doing extremely well even though there's no Asian customers."

Sydney-based Cha Bar founder Jackie Lee notes there has also been a trend towards customers being more health-focused.

"I think people are just starting to really realise what goes into bubble tea," she says. "A lot of people who drink bubble tea two or three times a day don't want to be drinking something sugar-laden."

Adrian Widjonarko says he consumes between three to six bubble teas a week.
Adrian Widjonarko says he consumes between three to six bubble teas a week. Photo: Janie Barrett

As a result, Lee's store focuses on using ingredients including matcha, collagen and aloe vera, which Lee says appeal to older customers such as parents who tag along to the store with their children.

"Tea is a really good way to get health benefits including antioxidants," she says.

Melbourne resident and law student Maxine Rae says she's drunk a bubble tea every day since first trying it in high school. 

"Bubble tea is my coffee," she says. "The sensation of having something sweet to chew is really nice and kind of addictive."

But Rae hasn't always been a fan. "At first, it was such a weird sensation to me," she says. "But after you warm up to it, I feel like most people ... fall in love with it." 

And she says that pattern has been consistent with people she has introduced the drink to over the years.

"I always find people spit out their first bubble tea. They're super reactive to it. Then the second one, they're like, 'this is so weird'. But by the third one, they're suggesting we get bubble tea."

Elsemary doesn't think the popularity of the beverage will last. "When something new and different comes along, it will die like the rest of the trends that come and go," she says. 

Instead, she focuses on showcasing the diversity of drinks including Vietnamese and Turkish coffee. "We try to give our tours to encourage people to try something different and authentic," she says. 

However, with brands constantly innovating, Rae believes the drink is here to stay.

"The love that people have for bubble tea is this adoration that feels similar to how people talk lovingly about chocolate or pizza. I think it has become a new staple food in Australian society."

Sydney and Melbourne's most popular bubble tea stores 

Machi Machi, various locations across Sydney and Melbourne

A minimalist bubble tea chain offering bottled milk teas with toppings including pearls, cream cheese foam and taro balls. Widjonarko's go-to order is the grapefruit jelly with grapefruit slush drink.

Xing Fu Tang, various locations across Sydney and Melbourne

Featuring an open kitchen concept, this chain is known for its brulee drinks and brown sugar pearls. It also offers non-dairy milk replacements. 

CoCo, various locations across Sydney and Melbourne

The pearl milk tea and lychee flavours are favourites among customers but Widjonarko says the global chain offers "a wide range of great, solid bubble tea options". Rae says it has "the best fresh milk teas" and the use of real milk says make a huge difference.

Top Tea, various locations in Melbourne including Box Hill, Doncaster and the CBD

This chain uses fresh fruit blended in front of customers. Despite not being a fan of cheese, Rae says she highly recommends Top Tea's cheese foam option. "I know it's a turn-off based on the name, but it's more of a salty cheesecake taste," she says. 

The Alley LuJiaoXiang, various locations across Sydney and Melbourne

The menu is regulary updated and Rae says the chain has innovative flavours such as "garden milk" tea with crushed biscuit on top. 

Bengong, various locations across Sydney including Haymarket, Burwood and St Leonards 

Widjonarko says this chain is similar to CoCo but it's also a bakery with a great cake menu.

Gotcha Fresh Tea, various locations across Sydney and Melbourne

Rae's pick for for the "best packaging", she says the chain has a collaboration with Hello Kitty at the moment, which is great for collectors. "I've saved a bag or two of theirs. Very Instagram-able if you're into that kinda thing."

Bean Code, K405/1 Anderson Street, Chatswood

This store makes its soy milk from scratch daily and is fully plant-based.

Happy Lemon, 77 Swanston Street, Melbourne

Rae says the store "excels in its name". "The lemon teas are super refreshing, with real lemon slices. It also serves bubble waffles [waffles with tapioca pearls cooked into them] which you can eat alongside."