Thai Tea at MILK+T. Photo by Tommy TrinhFirst, it was boba tea, a milk tea served with tapioca pearls. Then came cheese tea, a tea drink topped with a fluffy concoction of condensed milk and cheese foam or cheese cream.
Similar to Australia’s influence on specialty coffee trends, Taiwan has pioneered several specialty tea trends now popular across North America. But why does Taiwan have such an influence on beverage trends? And what’s the next big one?
We talked to several boba and cheese tea shop operators to find out.
Charleston, South Carolina
A child of Taiwanese immigrants, Hung used to visit Taiwan each year, and first tried boba at age 12 at his aunt’s boba tea stand. When he moved from New Jersey to South Carolina, he noticed that while boba tea was pretty popular in larger cities, Charleston didn’t have a boba shop. Hung and his wife decided to open Charleston’s first authentic boba shop in 2014, but at the time, they struggled to find a landlord who understood the boba tea concept.
The couple eventually subleased a 400-square-foot space.
“We used to sell about $50 in a whole day but now we’re not doing too badly,” says Hung.
Their business has grown as the concept has taken off, and several other boba shops have opened in the area.
“Every month we try to come up with new flavors based on my wife’s recipes,” says Hung. These have included butterbeer, spicy mango, and lychee rose milkshake.
They’ve also added cheese tea, as well as Thai and Taiwanese street food such as popcorn chicken and Thai dumplings, the latter of which is available on weekends. Earlier this year, they introduced two new cheese tea drinks: boba brûlée, which uses a torch to crystalize the sugar, and Oreo cheesecake, which tastes like its namesake, according to Hung.
“Once people try [cheese tea], they’re coming back for it, and we’re creating these other unique drinks,” he says. Hung adds that after they try several versions of a new drink concept in Taiwan, they’ll put their own spin on it.
Hung’s prediction for the next tea trend hails not from Taiwan but Thailand. Galaxy tea uses the flower nam dok anchan (also called clitoria ternatea or butterfly pea) from Thailand to change colors when it reacts with lemonade or lemon juice.
“When you look in a clear bottle it looks like a kaleidoscope made out of tea,” says Hung. “That’s something we will be doing soon.”
Beaverton, OR, Las Vegas & Los Angeles
Kwong grew up in San Gabriel, which she calls the boba capital of California, thanks in part to a large community of Asian Americans.
“There are teahouses on every single corner; it’s almost like Starbucks,” she says. “I was always surrounded by that, and I wanted to build my own teahouse someday.”
That day came in 2015, when she opened a self-serve boba truck. Now, MILK+T has brick-and-mortar locations in three states. However, boba tea wasn’t always as trendy as it is now.
“When boba was first introduced to the States in the 1990s, a lot of people thought it was a phase,” says Kwong. “Eventually it grew past that and turned into almost like the coffee industry. Ever since Crazy Rich Asians came out, there’s more of a focus on minority groups. Maybe that’s why the boba industry is blooming.”
Kwong points out that Asian countries not only influence tea, but also desserts. For instance, mochi, the Japanese sticky rice cake, and mochi ice cream are now available in many American supermarkets. Social media may have played a role in these trends.
“Instagram definitely has a huge impact because people take photos and word of mouth spreads to everyone they know,” adds Kwong.
Kwong predicts that galaxy tea or soft serve mixed with boba could be the next big thing.
“I’ve seen it in Canada, and there are photos of it in Taiwan,” she says. “I think it’s only a matter of time before someone [in the U.S.] gets soft serve and puts boba on it.”
Jenny Zheng Founder,
Little Fluffy Head Café
Los Angeles, California
Zheng points out that while cheese tea may have originated in Taiwan, it attracted attention after becoming popular in mainland China around 2015.
“I think China and Taiwan are so similar, they are influencing each other in a way,” she explains. After trying cheese tea while visiting Shenzhen, China, Zheng became one of the first to open a cheese tea shop in the U.S. in 2017.
Zheng says the novelty and surprise factor of cheese tea has contributed to its popularity.
“It’s not what you think it is,” she says. “It looks like a regular tea latte.” When you drink it, though, you discover that it has a richer, creamier texture than a regular tea latte and a subtle saltiness.
Immigration has a lot to do with the import of Asian drink trends, according to Zheng.
“A huge group of Taiwanese immigrants migrated to the United States and they bring with them this drink culture,” she says. “I think that plays a big part in influencing the beverage culture in the United States.”
Her pick for the next beverage trend? Brown sugar iced milk. The Taiwanese drink is popular with the Asian community in San Gabriel Valley, but because it uses whole milk, Zheng admits that the recipe would need to be adapted to appeal to mainstream American consumers.
“The current trend is being healthy and drinking almond milk or oat milk, so this goes against that trend,” she says.
After trying cheese tea in his homeland of China, Shi opened Atulea in Seattle last fall. He says cheese tea’s unusual texture gives it an appeal similar to boba.
“It’s [a] very complex taste because you have two layers: one tea layer and one cheese layer,” he says. “The cheese kind of melts in your mouth. It tastes a little bit sour, a little bit sweet, a little bit salty, which really makes a good drink.”
Once customers try cheese tea, many return for more.
“I have some regulars [who] drink cheese tea every single day,” says Shi.
He sees matcha as the next big beverage trend thanks to its purported health benefits. The green tea powder originated in China, but is also popular in Japan. Atulea serves a dirty matcha with espresso, as well as matcha lattes with ingredients such as pineapple puree, white chocolate, or turmeric. With many concerned, health-conscious Americans, he believes a lower-calorie bubble tea could also prove popular stateside.