A Boba Barista's Mini-Guide to Bubble Tea Drinks
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A Boba Barista's Mini-Guide to Bubble Tea Drinks

Quick and dirty ways to help you judge where to go and how to order your teas.

A Boba Barista's Mini-Guide to Bubble Tea Drinks

The breakdown of a basic bubble tea with boba

Someone wrote a good article a while back introducing "bubble tea", which many people shorten to call "boba" now from the Chinese term used to describe the tapioca pearls that inhabit the majority of these Taiwanese drinks. I myself am a mild boba enthusiast: my sister at home loves going out with her friends to try out new boba places as soon as they open up, keeping a journal of where they went last, what's good at each place, and a sort of blacklist of places that were not to their liking, and she would bring me back drinks she found to be her favorite, meaning I'm always filled with sugar at any given time when I go home for breaks and holidays. I also happen to be a barista of boba as my part time job, and being surrounded by drinks that I've been encouraged to try by my boss has calibrated my tongue for tea-tasting.

Those two criteria together have given me what I think is enough experience to make a quick guide on boba place-critiquing. Some of these things are thoughts I had in agreement while reading the other article, while some are more leaning towards the other way. I'll also give some of the more hard-and-fast rules in ordering your drink to make placing the order quick and easy for both you and the cashier, so there's less stress for both of you and you get your hands on that ice-cold (or steaming hot!!) goodness all the quicker.

The 1-2-3s in Rating a Boba Place

While there are basic criteria for any food-industry location, I'll list the main ones you'll want to check out at a standard boba place to make sure you're giving them - or depriving them of - the Yelp stars they deserve.

First and foremost, check the menu. See how complex the drink orders can possibly be. What teas does the location offer? Are there many flavors to try? Can you adjust an order pretty well to fit your liking, or are most things pretty set in stone? These questions determine a few things. Unless the location specializes in a certain particular tea or flavor, the offerings of tea and flavor choices can really range from very few to very many, which begs the questions: "Will they have something I like here?" or "Can I get through reading this menu before my next birthday passes?". The ease of order adjustments will reflect the level of customer service by the workers and also increase the likelihood that you'll have a drink you can completely enjoy. For example, I order a lot of my drinks with no or less ice, since I drink fast enough that the drink stays cold and the ice just takes up room where I could have more tea. Other people with more sensitive tongues like to adjust sugar levels to either higher or lower levels than the basic one. Most places (and the best ones in my opinion) use or have the option of making a drink non-dairy, so even lactose-intolerant people can enjoy the more creamy drinks. Add-on options like boba or grass jelly are also nice as they can provide texture to the drink.

TL;DR #1: How well can this place serve you?

Next, if you really want to test a location's integrity, I urge you to try the basic milk tea. It's the classic bubble tea flavor and is the ultimate determiner of any place being able to call itself a legitimate location that sells the stuff. Is it cloyingly sweet, even at the most basic sugar level? Or can you actually taste the milk tea itself? Not to say that places can't make their milk tea differently of course. But when I order a scoop of vanilla ice cream at an ice cream shop, I expect to taste vanilla and not an icy ball of pure sugar. I've actually had some milk tea sold at convenience stores sold in Korea that were better than some milk teas that were made to order in an actual boba shop here stateside. While this criterion can seem a bit pretentious it may be a good way to predict how the other drinks are made or what the overall vibe might be from the shop as a whole.

TL;DR #2: Is this place authentic?

As with the previous point, also consider the add-ons you can put in the drinks. A starting point can be judging the consistency and flavor of the boba (too chewy or too soft and whether it's also very sweet or not). Then you can consider the other add-ons available to put in the drinks, usually an assortment of jellies (including grass or herb jelly) or pudding or red bean or even chopped aloe vera. The only one that rubs me the wrong way is "popping boba" and its more recent addition to menus. Think Gushers, with the iconic liquid filling, but in small ball shapes and without the chewiness. For me it just alters the flavor of my drink too much with its flavor explosions, and one of the few elitist things I can stand having is not having popping boba in any place that dare calls itself a boba location. Biases aside, such add-ons can really enhance or ruin a good drink, and you should definitely explore your options.

TL;DR #3: How "extra" can this place make your tea?

Bonus: Ordering Your Drink

This section in particular can make for a positive experience for both you and the employee helping you at the register. Follow these points in the case where there are no posted instructions on how to order:

Start with the size of your drink. Then mention the type of drink (i.e. flavor). After that, state any and all personal edits you would like to make to the drink (i.e. ice level or sugar level if applicable, any add-ons you would like, etc.).

Other points to hit are having any discount cards, stamp cards, coupons, or any other special offers ready to show the cashier if necessary.

As a last tip, for the love of all that is good please have your form of payment ready to give to the cashier. Have your card or cash ready to hand over to the person ringing up your order. Two common pet peeves of many people behind the counter are a) having a person hold up a potentially-long line fishing out a wallet from a backpack or purse and then fishing the payment out of said bag (or worse, forgetting to bring any form of wallet) and b) making edits after having made an order and printing a receipt, so make sure you were as thorough and ready as possible at the time of ordering.

Using this criteria and following these steps, you too can begin your quest in becoming a boba connoisseur, or at least be a better customer.

(Do you think I missed anything important? Leave a comment below on how you like your tea!!~)

It's true, you know.

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