Bubble tea has always been one of my favorite drinks. It brings me back to when I was less than ten years old, wandering around Chicago’s Chinatown and clutching my go-to watermelon freeze with tapioca pearls. Since then, I’ve expanded my tastes to include traditional bubble teas made with tea and cream, ranging from a classic black milk tea to a bitter, earthy matcha milk tea.
Bubble tea has become somewhat of an obsession; every new city I go to, I try to scout out a new bubble tea spot. Sometimes, I’m disappointed if the drinks are watery and too sweet, and the bubbles are stale. But other times, I end up going to the same spot over and over again, and I’ve noticed some similarities between the truly great bubble tea places.
1. The Bubbles
This is the most important part of a bubble tea drink and one of the easiest ways to differentiate a quality tea shop from an average one. The bubbles, also known as tapioca pearls, should be springy and chewy, not hard and stale, and they should have a slight sweetness from being marinated in a light simple syrup.
2. The Ability to Customize Your Drink
Some people like their bubble tea as sweet as a Starbucks frap, while others prefer it unsweetened so they can really enjoy the taste of the tea. As such, if a bubble tea shop allows you to adjust the sweetness level to your liking, you know they have your best interests at heart.
Other ways your can customize your drink include adding toppings such as red bean and herbal jelly or adjusting the ice levels (because no one likes a watered-down drink). Some places will even make a hot version of your drink for those craving bubble tea on a cold day.
3. Seating and Environment
It’s surprising how many times I’ve gone into a bubble tea shop with no A/C, even on a hot summer’s day. It immediately puts me in a bad mood and makes me want to get out of there as fast as possible (who knows, maybe they don’t want their customers to linger). A spacious seating area may be hard to find as well, as some shops only have enough room for a few stools by the window. Ideally, there would be enough seats for a family and a few pairs to sit and enjoy their tea.
Free WiFi is also a huge plus, especially for college students looking for a new study spot that isn’t the library. Basically, you want your bubble tea shop to replicate a coffee shop.
4. Drink Variety
Some people don’t go to bubble tea shops for the tea (shocking, I know). They go for the fruit smoothies, coffee drinks, or milkshakes. You want to make sure your bubble tea spot has something for everyone, even if that means giving someone major side-eye when you see them ordering a vanilla latte.
It’s also nice to have a diverse assortment of teas so you can change the base of your drink depending on what you’re craving. From an aromatic, slightly bitter matcha to the classic, earthy black tea, you’ll definitely find something that hits the spot.
5. High-Quality Tea
A bubble tea snob will put the taste of the tea above all else on this list. As much as I love the taste of sugar and milk, it’s important for me to be able to taste the tea behind the sweetness; the bitterness and fruity undertones of the tea help balance out the richness and sweetness of the milk and sugar. You want your drink to taste good even without all the extra frills and toppings.