The Reign of Bubble Tea

A beloved beverage’s journey from East to West.

Bubble tea is a favourite libation of young people. Whether in Vietnam, where temperatures can reach 40°C, or Canada, where it can be -10°C in winter, customers wait in long lines for milk tea.

Where the wave first started

Taiwan is one of the famous tea producing countries in the world. People there frequent tea shops just as often as Vietnamese do coffee shops.

Bubble tea was born in Taiwan in the 1980s. The revolution began when Mr. Liu Han-Chieh, the owner of the Chun Shui Tang shop, came up with a creative method of mixing and shaking tea with milk and ice. Later, this drink was enhanced with fruit flavours and tapioca. The concoction helped Chun Shui Tang’s shop become successful, and from there it began a journey from East to West. Bubble tea has since become a beloved global drink, named because of the foam that appears on its surface as well as the bubble-like tapioca spheres.

Bubble tea in Vietnam

Bubble tea was introduced to Vietnam 20 years ago when young people were looking for affordable places to take a date. Since then, beverage shops have mushroomed.

Initially, bubble tea was only available from street vendors who had no prominent signs for what was then called Taiwanese milk tea. But now, if you visit Vietnam, you will see popular franchised bubble tea brands such as Gong Cha, R&B or Koi Thé. Bubble tea shops have become more diverse and upgraded. Customers now sip their drinks in fully furnished spaces with air-conditioning, music, and high wooden tables. These shops attract young people who want to meet and chat with friends. For those who want to study or work, there are quiet bubble tea places.

As the years have gone by and shops have gotten more sophisticated, bubble tea has become more expensive. In Vietnam, a glass of milk tea at big branded shops usually costs 50,000 to 80,000 VND (about C$3 to C$4.5). Back in 2000, the average price of a cup of bubble tea was around 20,000 to 30,000 VND (about C$1 to C$2). Although the price of bubble tea in Vietnam is still cheaper than Canada, there is some controversy regarding youth spending too much money on entertainment, including milk tea.

Bubble tea is no longer only for Asians

Not only popular in Eastern countries, but bubble tea also expanded its market to Western nations. In the beginning, local pearl milk tea shops focused on serving the Asian community. However, this drink has attracted more Western people who are curious to try it. Some familiar milk tea shop chains in Canada include Chatime, CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice, The Alley, and Tiger Sugar.

Bubble tea has become so popular that in 2016 Hillary Clinton tried the drink at Kung Fu Tea in Queens, N.Y., to reach Asian-Americans during her election campaign. Bubble tea is not just a beverage but it has come to reflect East Asian identity in North America.

Why is bubble tea so successful?

On news site Line Today, Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University, pointed out some reasons the beverage has caught on. Ray noted that tea, milk, and ice are familiar ingredients that seem to be impossible to combine but together are strange and delicious. The price is not too high, compared to other drinks, and it appeared right when young people wanted to try more new things.

The brand alone is not enough

Although loved wildly in both Vietnam and Canada, bubble tea brands are not always successful as there is fierce competition. Overall, there are more than 100 brands of milk tea in Vietnam (according to Lozi’s statistics in 2016) and a brand’s fame is not always enough. An example is the withdrawal of Ten Ren’s Tea from Vietnam’s milk tea market. In August 2019, after nearly two years of operation in Vietnam, Ten Ren’s Tea ­– a successful bubble tea brand in the United States and Canada and also one of Taiwan’s pride ­– officially announced its withdrawal from Vietnam due to disappointing revenue. In Canada, Ten Ren’s Tea is usually just a milk tea shop located in the food court at the mall. In Vietnam, to suit the tastes of consumers, Ten Ren’s shops were spacious and beautiful. However, the environment was not enough to help the brand rise above others. Meanwhile, Chatime, the “big man” of milk tea in Canada with more than 38 stores in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) alone, is also having a gloomy time in the Vietnam market.

Milk tea may be a favourite part of East Asian culture, but with the fierce competition, it seems market research needs to be properly focused if a brand is to thrive.

Alex Từ

This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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