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  • Writer's pictureAJ Gastelum

How Boba Tea Became Unique Within the US Drink Market

November 3rd, 2021

By: AJ Gastelum

Bubble tea has had a wildly different path into the US market than other mainstream drinks. It has recently grown into general popularity, in large part due to social media and because of the huge variety of bubble tea combinations. It is a growing product not just in cultural popularity, but also in terms of profit and drink market share.

Bubble tea as it is generally called on the east coast, or boba as it is more colloquially known on the west coast are one and the same. It might be your favorite childhood drink, or it may be completely new to you. So what is it?

Oxford Language Definition of Bubble Tea: A Taiwanese cold drink made with tea, sweetened milk or other flavorings, and balls or “pearls” of tapioca.
Origin in Taiwan and Spread to the USA

The origins of bubble tea lie in Taiwan, with two shops disputing from the 1980s to the present day over who was the original inventor. But regardless of who was the first, 珍珠奶茶 spread quickly from Taiwan across Asia, and then to the United States. First, it only popped up alongside large Taiwanese or Asian American communities in the 1990s, normally as a restaurant option, and rarely as a stand-alone store.

“Facebook scenes such as Subtle Asian Traits definitely helped people treat boba as not just a drink, but a social thing as well.” - Kung Fu Tea Employee Michaela S.
Social Popularity Leads to Growth

Over the next two decades, boba slowly became more and more popular, with many shops springing up in California and NYC. In the mid-2000s social media became widespread, and with it came the discovery of boba by the younger generation. Many who had never heard of the drink saw it for the first time, and the sheer variety of different boba combinations made it easy for anyone to want it. Stores began to pop up all over the USA, especially around college campuses and major cities. Chains began to develop, with shops like Ten Ren, Gong Cha, Boba Guys, and Kung Fu Tea showing up all over the country. These shops allowed people to have a brand they recognized anywhere and was another major stepping stone toward boba becoming recognized on a national scale. Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram created a digital awareness to make the bubble tea recipe a rapid success among young people. Boba shops became another “third place” (much like Starbucks) creating an environment where boba was more than the drink, it was the environment and social experience. This was already the case for many Asian American audiences, but the drink quickly attracted a larger following.


The secret to boba’s widespread US appeal has been in its adaptability. The Boba Guys chain has exemplified this, taking traditional Taiwanese boba recipes and mixing them with sweeteners, alternatives, and other drinks to make new recipes. This has been the hallmark of modern boba shops, which are constantly looking for new ingredients and ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. This has led to many stores marketing their specific brand of boba or boba products, such as NYC’s Smoove Ice Cream shop, which serves standard boba tea, as well as ice cream boba, ice cream float boba, and Hong Kong Egg Waffle boba.

Looking Further

Boba is definitely here to stay and will continue reaching more and more places around the US. The global market for bubble tea is projected to reach 3.39 billion by 2027, and the US is seeing a large part of that growth. Many companies are seeking to capitalize on this new popularity, with established chains like Dunkin Donuts even incorporating popping boba into their summer drink options. Boba will continue to grow more popular and widespread as a cultural and social phenomenon, the only question that remains is which companies will be a part of this change in the drink market.

“Strawberry flavor packed into small bubbles that literally pop in your mouth, Popping Bubbles can be added to any Dunkin’ iced or frozen beverage” - Dunkin Donuts


AJ Gastelum is one of the Co-Content Directors this semester. He is a sophomore at NYU Stern studying Marketing with a minor in Studio Art. Check out his article on Digital Marketing!

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