[Taiwan Insider] The Origins of Bubble Tea with Chun Shui Tang

Bubble tea, bōbà nǎichá (波霸奶茶), or zhēnzhū nǎichá (珍珠奶茶) – no matter what you call it, this chewy, milky glass of goodness is without doubt Taiwan’s most popular drink. But, did you know that it was invented here in Taiwan? (Read more: Bubble milk tea and beyond in Taiwan, part one)

DIY a cup of bubble milk tea at Chun Shui Tang (Image source: Taiwan Scene)

The famous beverage’s origins date back to the 1980s and a Taichung tea shop by the name of Chun Shui Tang (春水堂). Now a shop world renowned for its quality handmade drinks, Chun Shui Tang has locations in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. Taiwan Scene met the shop’s Associate General Manager Angela Liu at the chain’s Taipei location to talk all things bubble tea.

Meet Angela Liu, the Associate General Manager of Chun Shui Tang. (Image source: Taiwan Scene)

How Bubble Tea Came to Be

“The first iced black tea was invented in 1983 when we originally started our business. Originally, we were selling oolong tea and there are two seasons for oolong tea: the spring and the winter. In summer we encountered a problem. We didn’t have tea leaves but we still needed to keep the business running. In the summer, people don’t like to drink hot tea. At the time, my father was writing a book about tea. One time he went to Osaka in Japan and saw how hot coffee was turned into iced coffee and the thought: ‘Why not tea?’ They are effectively the same beverage. So, when he came back to Taiwan, he’d experienced how to turn hot tea into iced tea using a shaker, which would quickly turn it into iced tea. It was the first iced black tea to be invented. He’d use hot black tea and add sugar and ice and shake them together. There’d be a layer of foam on the top. So, originally, bubble tea referred to iced black tea. There would be a layer of thick ‘bubbles’ on the top.

At first, bubble tea was just a cup of ice tea with ‘bubbles’ on the top. (Image source: Taiwan Scene)

“After iced black tea was invented, people realized they could drink tea cold, not only hot, so we tried to convert all kinds of hot tea into iced tea. There’s six kinds of tea in Taiwan: black, green, white, all kinds of flower tea – all kinds of tea can be made into iced tea. And we wondered what else can we do to this [drink]? Over the course of tea history, people in the past would add fruits. We can see from old documents that people would add different ingredients to tea. So, why not do the same thing in the modern era? We have more ingredients, so he (Mr Liu) encouraged his employees to experiment. One of our employees, our vice president, who is still working here, put the tapioca balls into milk tea. Back then, we didn’t call it bubble tea. Bubble tea is the new name. We called it tapioca tea.” (Read more: Bubble milk tea and beyond in Taiwan, part two)

Tapioca balls were added in bubble tea in a later stage. (Image source: Taiwan Scene)

How They Go About Coming up with Different Flavors

“We experiment to try and find the best recipe. Sometimes you’ll make terrible combinations! You can’t put milk with lemon because it will curdle and drinks with blueberry need to be drank quickly, otherwise they turn a terrible color. We want customers to be able to drink our drinks for a long time, up to one hour. So, we need to consider time also. We use reasonable combinations.

Bubble milk tea’s popularity has grown very quickly in the past ten years. (Image source: Taiwan Scene)

“We didn’t apply for any intellectual property rights because we didn’t know it [bubble tea] would be so popular. This past ten years, its popularity has grown very quickly. As opposed to coffee, you can add all kinds of ingredients. Everyone can find a taste that they like with tea – low sugar, no sugar, no ice. It’s very interesting. Its base, the drink itself, probably won’t change too much [in the coming years]. I think it’ll last for many years; this kind of beverage will be very popular. A lot of people can’t drink coffee but they can drink tea. So, tea is a kind of substitute.”

Places Angela Suggests Overseas Tea Fans to Visit While in Taiwan

“Alishan is a place that you need to go to because that’s where most Taiwan tea is grown. You can taste varieties grown at 1,000m and 2,000m [altitude]. Also, Sun Moon Lake to try the original tea of Taiwan, Taicha. I’d also say Emei in Hsinchu. It’s a small village where you can experience Hakka culture, which is a distinct culture compared to Minan culture. It’s also the birthplace of Oriental Beauty Tea. There’s only two places that produce Oriental Beauty: Emei in Hsinchu and Pinglin. It has a fruity, honey scent and tastes a bit like black tea, which is my personal favorite.” (You might also like: The Taiwan Scene Guide to Taiwanese Tea)

Alishan is a place that tea lovers must go to because that’s where most Taiwan tea is grown. (Image source: MyTaiwanTour)

What’s Important When It Comes to Making a Good Cup of Bubble Tea?

“There are three important keys when it comes to making good bubble milk tea. The first one, of course, will be the tea itself. The tea must be high quality. Secondly, it will come down to the sugar. You must use cane sugar instead of regular sugar, as it’s less sweet than other sugars. Our products [Chun Shui Tang’s] are only half the sweetness of other store’s products. Plus, cane sugar adds more flavor to the tea. Last, but not least, it’s the bubbles. You definitely can’t add preservatives when making the bubbles. After it [the bubbles] is made, it’ll remain fresh for only three or four hours. Afterwards the texture will not be as chewy and they’ll become softer and less delicious.”

Wanna learn how to make a cup of bubble tea? Inquire here.