Sweet but faint black tea taste mixed in with milk meets caramel, jelly-gelatin tapioca pearls. Sipped through a wide, extra long straw from a tall, wide cellophane-sealed cup. Whether you call it boba milk tea, bubble tea or pearl tea, the growth of popularity for this drink is ever-apparent in little ol’ Eugene. Here’s your breakdown of boba, milk tea and (almost) everything in between.
Commonly referred to as “the black balls at the bottom of the cup,” boba is made from tapioca flour, which is rolled into little balls, boiled and then dunked and kept in a mixture of brown sugar until it’s poured into drinks, giving them a smooth, iconic caramel-y taste. Despite the name "bubble tea" being an umbrella term for milk tea and it's toppings, boba is only one type of tapioca pearl.
“Boba (波霸)” refers to large tapioca pearls, around seven millimeters in width. Some shops do not boil their boba in brown sugar, so they look semi-translucent or white. Despite this drink and topping’s Taiwanese roots, the name “boba” actually means “big breasted” in Cantonese slang.
If you ever order boba and they all seem stuck together at the bottom of your cup, chances are the boba had been sitting in the vat for a while and not been stirred.
The term “pearls (珍珠)” refers to the much smaller tapioca pearls, which are barely two or three millimeters in width and, because they are not steeped in brown sugar, also appear white or semi-translucent in the cup. In the United States, pearls are not as popular, but in Eugene, you can find this option at Oolong Tea Bar on 19th Avenue.
Boba is commonly served in milk tea, which is traditionally black tea mixed with milk products, such as milk, cream or condensed milk, among others. Aside from milk teas, boba can be ordered and added into fruit teas, smoothies, lattes and more, depending on the shop.
The specific origins of boba milk tea are still up for debate. It is indisputable that the drink originated in Taiwan, but which city and shop owner created the drink and served it first is still in question.
Unfortunately (spoiler alert for avid bubble tea drinkers), what most shops do nowadays is use powders and mix them with water, rather than use real, brewed tea. Try asking the clerk when you go into the next shop, and they’ll probably sheepishly admit it’s all powder.
What has led to a growth in these shops is the ambience, snack offerings and customization of each drink. Boba shops like D.I.Y. Tea & Beyond, Rabbit Hole and Day & Night Boba Tea House offer different arrays of sweet and savory snacks ranging from egg waffles to popcorn chicken to accompany your drinks and entice you to stay.
Milk tea and fruit tea flavors at most boba places usually include taro, strawberry and peach, among others. Although some places may use fresh fruit, most milk teas mix powder with water or milk while fruit teas are a mix of juices and syrups.
Any additions to drinks, like boba, are called toppings. If you order a drink with boba, the boba will be scooped up from the brown sugar mixture, strained, then dumped into your cup. The same is done for any variety of jellies, beans and pudding a shop may offer. Popular toppings include popping boba, lychee jelly, rainbow jelly and pudding. Most of these toppings can be found at all the boba shops in Eugene, including the ones already listed, plus Bobahead, Milky Way and Brew Dr. Teahouse (Townshend’s Tea Company).
Popping boba is not actually boba, despite its name implying otherwise. It's syrup encased in a pearl-shaped edible shell that, when bitten on, pops, hence the name. Similar in size to boba, its popularity in the last few years has grown, so popping boba can be found in flavors like strawberry, mango, lychee and watermelon, to name a few.
Jellies and pudding are exactly what they are called, jellies being in different shapes and flavors to differentiate the type. Pudding is actually a flan that has been made to the point of almost unrecognisable form. Because of its base of sugar, malleable form and iconic pale yellow color, pudding's flavor and texture profile are a great compliment to most milk tea flavors; it has become more well known and has also grown in popularity.
Most boba shops simply list these toppings and tea flavors with the expectation that people already know what they are. Hopefully, with this guide, you’ll no longer be puzzled over what to order, plus curious to try other drink and topping combinations, as well as explore what each boba shop in Eugene has to offer.