• Boba as a Gateway to Tea

    Boba Guys make their drinks with real fruit, real milk, real foamed cheese, and real tea, brewed from loose-leaf oolong and other quality varietals, and served with tapioca balls made in their own factory. The bustling chain, now with 20 locations, was co-founded by Andrew Chau and Bin Chen. Chau, a featured speaker at World Tea Expo this week, explains how relentless attention to quality elevated a simple mix of milk tea and tapioca to a $3 billion global segment that is enticing a generation of non-tea drinkers to give tea a try.

    • Caption: Andrew Chau, co-founder and CEO, Boba Guys.
    Co-founder, CEO, and author of The Boba Book Andrew Chau describes the allure of bubble tea.

    ‘We Really Push the Envelope for Quality’

    By Dan Bolton

    A business graduate with a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Andrew Chau worked as a marketing planner and manager at Target and Walmart before co-founding Vergence Media, a digital imaging startup. He later managed e-commerce for Timbuk2, a consumer electronics venture, and worked as a global brand manager for LeapFrog, in Emeryville, Calif. In 2011 he and Bin Chen launched Boba Guys opening their first shop in the Mission District. In 2015 they launched Tea People. The company has since expanded with six locations in Los Angeles and one in New York City.

    Dan Bolton: Why is bubble tea a gateway for exploring tea in-depth?

    Andrew Chau: I hope I don’t insult anybody by suggesting that you need boba in order to experience tea. There’s a millennia of history with tea. I’m not saying that we’re rewriting all of that history. Tea is something that’s been drunk for thousands of years.

    In certain countries, tea is normal, in certain places coffee is normal, in certain places mate is normal. Tea is basically a cultural product. When I say it’s a gateway drink, what I mean is that is how a lot of people get into tea. It brings you into the deep parts of tea; we’re talking about knowing what an oolong is, knowing where tea comes from in the world.

    Knowing tea at that depth opens the gate.

    There’s a drink that I really love in Taiwan, where my parents are from. It’s made with a high mountain oolong, a buttery tea that you put crema on top. The crema is like ultra milk, some people call it cheese. Sometimes you get a milk mustache drinking it along with the tea. It’s almost like a milk tea, and yes you are having tea with milk, maybe there’s some sugar in it. But what you are really tasting is the body of the drink, which in this case is an outstanding oolong, an Iron Goddess [of Mercy] tea with a milk cap or foam. Ten years ago you would have probably just ordered a Frappuccino.

    And that’s how so many people get in. The idea is to get you interested in the tea. Sure it is called a “Frozen Summit Oolong” but drinking it you are starting to understand the profile of that fine tea flavor.

    That’s what we do.

    We really push the envelope. We source our own tea and sell it to different cafes across the world. Our tea brand pushes innovation, meaning that we do nitro tea because with nitro you have more body and can taste nuances that you wouldn’t get in a hot water steep.

    What we do is get people involved.

    A gateway is basically like a beachhead, right? It’s where people enter. So you enter the shop and order a simple milk oolong, a Tie Guan Yin, a familiar English breakfast tea, or a Ceylon tea. We capture the best qualifies of these teas in a bubble format.

    Dan: Your Boba gateway doesn’t have a sign on it announcing, “no one over 35 allowed.” Boba Guys shops are filled with people of all ages eating and slurping and conversing. They are animated and interact as they poke and play with their broad-diameter straws. Boba is experiential — a drinking occasion that mingles quality tea and a memorable experience. Will you talk about those aspects?

    Andrew: People sometimes say boba is a fad. I’m like, well, how is it a fad if two billion people drink milk tea, or have tapioca every day? When boba first came out, it was a kind of dessert. Tapioca and cassava, the plant that it is made from, are native to Brazil. The Portuguese and Spaniards brought it to Southeast Asia. Similar to flan, you have cassava pudding, and cassava cake across Southeast Asia, in Malaysia, the Philippines, and other Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The pudding got mixed into a milk tea culture. In Europe, there’s a milk tea culture in the Middle East, and even in Mongolia and Russia.

    So I think that what happened is that it caught on again, in modern times as a kid’s drink because teenagers drink it loaded with a lot of sugar. I was one of those kids, but as I got older my metabolism changed, so I have to watch that sugar.

    When we created Boba Guys we purposely made it accessible. The format and taste profile are like what people want in a Frappuccino. We lowered the sugar content and used raw sugar. We make our own sugars. We don’t have any high fructose corn syrup in our stores. That is one way we made it accessible.

    Consider matcha. Everybody loves matcha in a latte or shake, but many don’t appreciate matcha’s tea culture. We have tea classes at Boba Guys. I teach people ‘this is a Dragonwell, a Longing green tea,’ or ‘this is a sencha green tea.’ When you grind it up to make it into a fine powder that is essentially matcha. At Boba Guys we layer it into the drink. The technique is known as a pousse-café. You see the layer, it is visually separate versus one giant green mixed latter.

    I explain that you’re drinking the entire tea leaf, whereas if you had a Dragonwell Longjing it would just be steeped. So you begin to understand how your body is internalizing all these anti-oxidants, like the catechins and ECGC. When you explain that to people you’re able to story tell. People haven’t been articulating the story of boba.

    How do we make it accessible to Americans?

    We explain that it is something to enjoy casually. If you want a slight tea buzz and you’re young and just are not a alcohol drinker. Go grab a boba.

    That’s what we are seeing now. It’s become a hangout for people. You would never a decade ago hear a regular everyday American want to talk about oolongs. You would hear them talk about green tea and black tea. I think we have come a long way and we want to be much more inclusive.

    “When I say it’s a gateway drink, what I mean is that it’s how a lot of people get into tea. It brings you deeper into tea, knowing what an oolong is and what is Pu’er, knowing where tea comes from in the world.”

    – Andrew Chau

    Bridging Cultures

    The Boba Guys sell tea online and supply many cafes and shops. “We started Tea People because we wanted to share our favorite teas with our friends the only way we knew how, by keeping it simple,” said Chau. “We visit the farms ourselves and source our own teas. Our mission is to make quality tea approachable, so we try to make it intimate, straight from the source,” he said.


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  • A Taste of Modern Tea

    Mike Bunston, OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) is chairman of the London Tea History Association, honorary chairman of the International Tea Committee and serves as Sri Lanka’s Tea Ambassador. He began his career in tea at the Wilson Smithett & Co. brokerage in 1959. Bunston recently visited the Tea History Collection in Banbury, Oxfordshire, to videotape a tasting of modern teas, including milk tea, a Jasmine-Mango fruit tea, and his first taste of bubble tea. Charlie Shortt, co-founder of the Tea History Collection organized the tasting and narrates this exchange.

    • Caption: Mike Bunston, OBE, concludes his first tastings of bubble tea, fruit tea and milk tea with a chuckle.

    Hear the tasting soundtrack

    Charlie Shortt offers tea taster extraordinaire Mike Bunston samples of several modern teas.

    See the video

    Hear the interview

    Bernadine Tay discusses recent innovations in tea with Mike Bunston

    A Taste of Modern Tea

    I’m Bernadine Tay, founder of Quinteassential teas and one of the founding directors of the European Speciality Tea Association. Join me as Mike Bunston shares his insights into modern innovations in tea after his very first tasting of bubble tea.

    Bernadine Tay: When you were first asked to taste bubble tea, did you have any expectations of what this could be? Having tasted millions of cups of tea as a tea taster, what do you think of the texture of the chewy tapioca balls? Or the fruit chunks in this colorful, customizable, Frappuccino-style beverage?

    Mike Bunston: I naively thought bubble tea meant it literally had bubbles in it. Because I had tasted a tea champagne, which was made purely out of tea, and I thought it must be something like that. But it was nothing like that at all. It’s totally different.

    When I took my first suck, I first got liquid and then got the meal as it were, oh my goodness me. This is an extraordinary sensation. And then of course, they put the three in front of me — very different ones. And the irony was that they [the organizers] had made secret packs as to which I would like best and worst. The first two were sweet. One was just like a smoothie. The second one was more like a sweet orange type drink, a bit too sweet for my taste. But I enjoyed it nevertheless.

    As the third one was set in front of me they said “now this one is very different”. It had something like sweet potatoes in it. I believe it was Taro, which made the drink purple. The color was slightly off putting, but I soon learnt it tastes good. It was an attractive drink. And this certainly appeals to the younger generation. I’ve got grandchildren ranging between 20 and 36 and I haven’t had the chance to ask them if they have tried bubble tea.

    In regard to the bubbles, my initial view is we could have probably done without the tapioca balls. Then as I got chewing I thought, “this is quite interesting”.

    I can see why this attracts people of this generation. A real get up and go by it. You can walk through the street and drink it, if you’re in a rush. A total contrast to the traditional ways of drinking tea, with a teapot and cup. It is fascinating, and clearly they’ve got a great thing here, especially with the colorful and customizable options. The Taiwanese have always been great innovators, for everything.

    Bernadine: Innovation is about creating something new that solves a problem. Do you see that with bubble tea?

    Mike: If you’re a young person working in London, or any major city in the world, you’ve got a short time to have lunch, you’re out and about and want to meet a friend. You pick up one of those and suck it and chew it as you go along. In a way it’s almost as good as a meal, isn’t it? So, I think it’s trendy and practical, but it gives you all the goodness that you want from tea and everything else with this little added thing with the tapioca bubbles. So I think it’s clever.

    Bernadine: The mark of good innovation is its staying power. So do you think bubble tea is here to stay?

    You’re right. It begins with an idea that gets improved upon over time. It might take a while for it to gain a foothold, but if it works then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be there forever. I think, in the case of bubble tea, I could have said without knowing much about it that I expect it’s just another fad. Having heard much more and tasting it, I think it’s got staying power for sure.

    In summary, I love tea. When I talk about tea, I talk about camellia sinensis. So, anything that has got tea in it, I’m happy with. What I’m not happy with are all the things that say they are tea on the supermarket shelf, like mint tea, or fruit tea with the fruit and no tea. That really upsets me. But if it’s got tea that’s just a great thing.

    They’re using tea as a base to make bubble tea and bringing it up, as you say, to the 21st century.

    I think what people can do nowadays, with modern technology and all the bright ideas people have, all things are possible.

    “I love tea. When I talk about tea, I talk about camellia sinensis. So, anything that has got tea in it, I’m happy. ”

    – Mike Bunston

    The Tea History Collection commemorates the history of tea, and preserves important items associated with the industry. Viewings and reservations for meetings are by appointment at the privately owned museum and audio visual center in Banbury. To learn more, visit www.TeaHistory.co.uk

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  • Need to Know | Boba Delivery

    Tea industry news for the week of May 18.

    • Boba Tea Tops Beverage Delivery Lists
    • East Africa Update
    • Turkish Tea Harvest
    • Robotic Waitstaff Serves Tea
    • Nepal Asks India to Resume Tea Imports

    Boba Tea Tops Unique Food Orders

    In March YELP! marketers decided to find out what food and beverages people across the country were being delivered right now! Data scientists tracked how frequently a dish is ordered in each state relative to its popularity in other states.

    “When we first looked at the results, pizza delivery reigned supreme, which is no surprise since it delivers well and it’s perfect for a family night in. However, we dug into the data to find the most uniquely popular delivery order in every state*, and that’s when things got interesting,” writes YELP!

    Winners include a run on crayfish in Texas, poke bowls in Indiana, pad thai in Washington, sushi in South Carolina and naan in Wyoming but guess what topped the list of delivery orders in California last week? How about Michigan? and Hawaii?

    Boba tea.

    “What we found was a mix of delectable dishes and drinks that tell a story of how American taste buds differ from state to state and region to region,” according to the company.

    Click here to see the full list.

    *Samuel Hansen at Yelp! employed a natural language processing technique called term frequency-inverse document frequency (TF-IDF), which quantifies how frequently a dish is ordered in a state relative to its popularity in other states.

    East Africa Update

    Rwanda’s tea sector, largely spared from lockdowns, saw a marked increase in production during the first quarter. The harvest totaled 9,000 metric tons generating $27.6 million in revenue, which is up by 15% from the same period in 2019.

    But there are still formidable challenges getting that tea to market.

    East African tea growers truck tea destined for export to the auction at Mombasa. Kenya’s borders remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, but Tanzania and Kenya required each driver be tested before crossing.

    The result offers a lesson in what can go wrong. A shortage of testing supplies and the sheer number of truckers led to delays that extended from hours, to days, to weeks. Few of those who were tested showed symptoms and none were quarantined while they awaited results. Unable to afford hotel rooms they slept in or under their trucks, cooked together and played sports to kill time. Some wore masks but many did not and very few practiced social distancing. During the two weeks ending last week 150 truckers crossing into Kenya at Namanga tested positive and were eventually ordered back across the border but by then they had infected hundreds of local merchants and fellow truck drivers.

    The Washington Post reports that beginning this week, only drivers that have tested negative prior to arrival at the border will be permitted to cross. Uganda has since discovered dozens of infected truck drivers crossing from Kenya. Zambia closed its border to Tanzanian truckers. Kenya is the largest tea producer in the region at approximately 500 million kilograms followed by Uganda which harvests 60 million kilos annually; Tanzania at 35 million, Rwanda at 30 million and Burundi at 9 million kilos per year.

    At the Mombasa auction Rwanda growers earned an average $2.68 per kilogram of tea last year, followed by Kenya growers who received an average $2.59, Burundi at $2.21 per kilo, Tanzania $1.36, and Uganda $1.21. The overall average price was $2 per kilo.

    Kenya currently has 1,214 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. There have been 51 deaths. Tanzania is reported to have 509 confirmed cases with 21 deaths. Rwanda has 327 confirmed cases with no deaths reported as of the second week of May.

    Holiday Travel Restrictions Eased for Turkish Tea Growers

    Climate dictates that Turkish tea be harvested in three flushes, unlike Africa, Sri Lanka, and Southern India where plucking continues year-round. Tea is grown there on sparsely populate hills facing the Black Sea where growers depend on seasonal labor.

    This year’s spring flush was interrupted by a March 28 lockdown to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Fatma Genc, a researcher at Istanbul’s Marmara University, told The National, that 50,000 tea farmers were unable to prepare their fields for the harvest. Ramadan, which began April 23, complicated timing for Muslims.

    “The failure to harvest this year will make it difficult to meet even domestic demand,” said Genc told the newspaper. “Tea prices, which have been hiked twice in a row this year, will increase even more if the producers cannot go to the field.”

    This week farm owners and laborers from across the country were finally able to travel to northern Turkey on trips extending through the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival that follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Seasonal labor from neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan continue to face border restrictions leading to some creative solutions. The city of Findikli in Rize hired locals to harvest around half of the 30,000 metric tons produced nearby in an agreement that spans six months. Workers harvest for 10 days and while the leaves for the next flush are growing they complete municipal projects.

    In Rize Province, the heart of the growing region, 16,000 laborers were given permission to travel between fields and home. The Provincial General Hygiene Council required testing at least one member of each family, about 6,000 in all. Screenings continue.

    The provinces of Rize, Trabzon, Artvin and Giresun produce around 260,000 metric tons of tea annually, most of it sold domestically. Turks consume an average 3.5 kilos of tea a year, more than any other country. While much of the tea is imported, a significant shortfall is expected due to rising costs and the fact that much of the domestic tea went unpicked. Caykur, the state-owned producer that supplies 60% of the country’s tea is running a deficit and facing additional costs due to the pandemic. Caykur purchases tea from 200,000 independent farmers.

    Turkey has 157,814 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 4,369 deaths, making it ninth on the list of countries most impacted by the pandemic, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

    Tea garden in Turkey’s Rize Province, along the Black Sea.

    Robotic Waitstaff Serves Tea

    Tearoom Robot Reduces Contact with Waitstaff Easing Customer Concerns

    The Tea Terrace, a small London-based chain of tea rooms that was forced to close during the March outbreak intends to open this July with the assistance of family-friendly robots.

    Forbes magazine reports that managing director Ehab Shouly found while surveying customers that fear of crowding and contamination by waitstaff were their greatest concerns. Spacing tables was a relatively simple adjustment but a previous experiment with automated service at the company’s Surrey tearoom proved prescient. Last July The Tea Terrace became the first restaurant in the UK and Europe to introduce a robotic waitress, named Theresa.

    Theresa is summoned by guests using controls at the table. The robot responds to voice commands. Shouly has also introduced functional assistants such as Captain Tom, a bot that delivers up to four trays each with teapot, teaware, and food.

    Modifications are underway to expand robotic services to all four tearooms which serve 200 to 300 guests per day on weekends.

    Nepal Asks India to Resume Imports

    Tea growers in Nepal are seeking the resumption of exports to India, according to Nepal’s Ministry of Commerce and Supplies.

    India stopped importing tea the week of May 6 and has not responded to Nepali officials. Periodically India has shown its displeasure with Nepal by refusing entry of tea and other exports such as palm oil.

    Purna Kumar Karki, president of Jhapa Tea Entrepreneurs Association, told My Republica that Indian authorities impose non-tariff barriers on Nepali products from time to time “for no reason.”

    Sanjay Bansal, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), recently appealed to West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha to regulate the sale of Nepal tea to save the Darjeeling Tea Industry. Darjeeling growers maintain that Nepal undercuts their unique tea which is protected with a global Geographical Indication certifying its authenticity.

    Bansal told The Statesman Nepal did not impose a lockdown and growers there have been producing at a high rate since February. “These teas are ready and are in the process of being shipped to India through the Indo-Nepal land borders in West Bengal to be sold in the local markets by taking advantage of the absence of Darjeeling Tea in the market due to the lockdown restrictions,” said Bansal.

    In a related matter, Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry, North Bengal (FOCIN), has requested Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to allow small wholesale and retail shop owners to open their establishments.

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