Taiwanese bubble teas find a niche with a young Beiruti crowd

BEIRUT: Inside the small, brightly lit Bubble T shop tucked between two restaurants at the end of Hamra, baristas blend together the sweet ingredients for a special kind Asian tea drinks rarely seen here. A splash of milk, a dollop of sugar syrup, a dash of flavoring and a quarter cup of flavor powder, blended together with ice and poured over a small mound of pinball-size tapioca balls at the bottom of a plastic cup make up the Taiwanese bubble teas the shop sells.

The teas come in fluorescent colorings to match the rainbow of flavors offered at the store. There are tea flavors such as green and black, fruit flavors such as mango and honeydew and the more exotic flavors of taro and avocado.

The teas are drunk with oversized straws, giving each sip an at-first-unsettling hit of gooey tapioca orbs flying into the mouth along with the saccharine and intense flavor of the tea.

Offering an unusual drink in Lebanon is a risky venture for a market known to have a particular set of tastes, but store workers say that while many Lebanese don’t know about the shop, more and more are coming. In addition to the shop on Hamra, Bubble T also has a branch in City Mall Dora.

The shop has seen a slight increase in customers during Ramadan, with some people looking to mix up their post sunset drink with a cool refreshment in place of traditional fruit juices.

Although the origins are hazy, the tea may have been first made in Taiwan sometime in the 1980s, when a woman poured a tapioca dessert into her tea.

After being made with a hot tea, cold tea took over, and then came slushies. Further developments kept percolating from there: Some tea makers added milk; others replaced the tea entirely with fruit flavors.

The name “bubble tea” itself likely comes from the bubbles made in the cup when shaken, and not from the tapioca balls themselves.

Visits on several Saturday nights to the Bubble T on Hamra saw customers come in fits and starts. So far, the teas have found a niche among the younger crowd. Lines can go out the door when groups of teens come looking for their late night sugar fix.

Zahra Nasuri, a 12-year-old whose favorite flavor is Nutella, says that although the sensation of sucking tapioca is “weird” at first, she has since become hooked and has come for a drink four times since discovering the shop a few weeks ago.

At Bubble T, the drink flavors come in two categories – “milky” and “slushy.” Patrons also get a choice in sugary or caramel tapioca at the bottom of the cup. Large size drinks get the traditional Asian treatment, sealed with a plastic film to make the drink spill proof.

The broad palette of choices is what appeals to 14-year-old Hasan Gohsn. Regular fruit drink stands just don’t offer choices like passion fruit and blueberry, says Gohsn, while sipping a large Nutella flavored bubble tea.

“There are [many] different flavors compared with other drink places,” Gohsn says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 13, 2012, on page 2.




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