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Reliving my teenage bubble tea craze for a week

For this International Bubble Tea Day, our writer went on a seven-day bubble tea marathon with seven of his favourite drinks.

Caleb Lau
Caleb Lau

Grew up a musician, found a calling in photography and writing. Still in love with all of them.


Published: 30 April 2022, 9:49 PM

For a nation thoroughly saturated with bubble tea brands and their endless menu varieties, it is only apt to celebrate the annual International Bubble Tea Day on Apr 30.

In the span of three decades, beginning with a shop named Bubble Tea Garden at Marina Square in 1992, the bubble tea landscape here has changed immensely.

Despite the neverending creations and brands that explode on the scene, those who grew up with the teenage bubble tea fad might have moved on to newer trends or shrunk their intake of the calorie-heavy drink.

As for me, the gnawing feeling 11 years ago that I couldn’t go without a cup a day has now become a mellow desire for a cup just once in a while.

But before the celebrated day arrived, I thought back to those teenage years and the few go-to drinks I had. 

 

deliveroo gong cha giveaway
Though the true origin of the celebrated day is uncertain, bubble tea brands like Gongcha have taken the opportunity to give away treats and discounts. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK/@DELIVEROOSG

 

An idea of a challenge then came to me: to go on a seven-day bubble tea diet for old times’ sake and to revisit some old flavours I used to be acquainted with.

Admittedly, just the thought of getting through seven bubble teas in the span of a week churned my stomach, as my current low-carb diet obsession as a young adult called out faintly at the back of my mind.

Nonetheless, throwing caution to the wind, I set foot on a path of nostalgia and lots – I really do mean lots – of pearls.

Sweet Talk’s red tea with pearls

To commence my new diet of the week, I decided the best drink to begin with would be my first fave.

 

sweet talk black tea pearl
The drink consists of a slight bitter tea and sugary sweet pearls. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU

 

I remember looking forward to a cup of this after dismissals in secondary school, back when the price was as low as $1.50 and adjustable sugar levels were out of the question.

Even after trying the other milk teas and ice-blended versions on its menu back then, the simplicity of the drink and its low price made it an easy go-to choice for me.

I would buy it religiously every day. So often to the point that the owner would immediately prepare the drink the moment she saw me enter the store.

But now, drinking this again ten years later, the only thing I got was nostalgia. This is probably a result of being exposed to other brands that boast of quality tea leaves and handmade pearls in my later teens. 

Even so, it still felt worthwhile to revisit my first love.

iTea’s green tea macchiato with grass jelly

I remember stumbling onto this local brand a year later by accident when one of its first few outlets opened in the vicinity of my neighbourhood.

 

iTea green macchiato grass jelly
The fragrant green tea comes topped with sweet milk foam to give a more unique drinking experience. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU

 

The initial draw for me was the cheaper menu pricing. The milk tea was priced at $1.80 then and came with free pearls. 

It was also my first time knowing that bubble tea could come in different cup sizes with a multitude of toppings to choose from. 

Checking out this combination again, I observed that the pearls now come at an additional price, and the dome-shaped cover that previously were used for macchiato drinks has been replaced with a regular seal. 

Nevertheless, the distinct herbal taste of the grass jelly definitely hit home as I reminisced about the adventurous bubble tea fan in me back then.

Gong Cha’s earl grey milk tea with 3J topping

Also at this time of my secondary school life in 2011, Taiwanese brands like KOI and Gong Cha had made their foray into Singapore and were the talk of the town.

 

gong cha earl grey milk tea 3J
The three toppings in this complex drink consist of pudding, grass jelly and the classic black pearls. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU

 

If memory serves, my growing fondness towards tea was the reason I went for Gong Cha’s aromatic earl grey tea. 

This was also the first place I knew that had three ingredients in a single topping, and I took to the distinct blend of chunky and chewy.

Years later, the drink still tastes just as I remembered – sweet and aromatic. 

However, the toppings paled in comparison to my previous favourite as the grass jelly and pudding lacked any sort of flavour, serving merely to give complex texture to the drink. 

But it is nice to see that Gong Cha has since added a L-size cup aside from the original M-size. 

Should I ever have a Gong Cha craving again, my big appetite would certainly appreciate the larger alternative.

Mr Bean’s pearly bandung soya milk

Around Secondary 3 or 4, I’d spend many late nights in school studying. To tide through the night, we’d pick up a quick bite and a drink from the most convenient option – Mr Bean.

 

mr bean pearly bandung
The pearly bandung is a blend of Mr Bean’s signature soy milk and rose syrup. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU

 

Looking at its pearly soy milk series, I instinctively went for pearly bandung as I disliked taro, the other option, back then. 

Revisiting this drink years later, the first thing that caught my eye was the new cup seal. It reminded me of an unforgettable (and embarrassing) memory. 

It was after school and I had just bought a cup of pearly bandung. Just as I was about to enter the MRT station, the cup slipped out of my hands and went crashing on the floor. 

As the drink cover back then was removable, everything – pearls and bandung milk – spilled and created a huge mess in front of the gantry. 

From that point, I’ve never entertained the thought of bringing drinks on the MRT ever again.

KOI Cafe’s black tea latte with golden pearls

Fast forward to a few years later, I was around 18 years old when I developed a small obsession with KOI. This was partly due to a family trip to Taiwan where I stumbled upon its original brand named 50 Lan and fell in love with its tea lattes.

 

golden pearl koi cafe tea latte
The drink is layered first with KOI’s signature golden pearls, fresh milk, and followed by ceylon black tea. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU

 

At that time, I would opt for the mini pearls topping due to its finer texture. It was also a novel option as few bubble tea brands did offer that topping. 

This time, however, I went with the signature golden pearls as the option for black tapioca pearls and mini pearls are no longer on the menu. I enjoy that the chewy texture and sugary taste still remains, though I still miss the mini iteration.

LiHo’s da hong pao milk tea with brown sugar pearls

In 2019, LiHo was mostly known at the time for its cheese tea series. In that same year, they launched a new type of Chinese tea named da hong pao along with brown sugar pearls.

 

liho da hong pao tea brown sugar pearl
The da hong pao tea is made with a premium dark oolong tea, giving off a woody fragrance. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU

 

Typically what puts me off from taking oolong tea would be the bitter notes that overtake the entire taste profile of the tea.

But with the da hong pao drink, the caramel flavour from the pearls and sweetness of the milk envelop the bitterness while retaining its fragrance. 

The drink also brought back memories of my earlier days in university, where I would grab a cup from the stall just a few minutes walk from my school during the harrowing exam periods and long days of lessons.  

Though I felt way too overwhelmed with the dozens of pearls I had ingested the past few days, the touch of warm pearls in the beverage made the experience a tinge more bearable.

Sharetea’s Okinawa pearl milk tea with mini pearls

Finally, I felt the best way to wrap this challenge was to drink my current favourite bubble tea – the Okinawa pearl milk tea. This is a drink that I would find myself purchasing at least once every two weeks.

 

share tea okinawa milk tea mini pearl
The Okinawa milk tea’s unique flavour stems from the Okinawa brown sugar which is blended with black tea and milk. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU

 

Sharetea holds a special place in my heart because it’s one of the last few brands that still offer mini pearls as a topping. 

A big reason that I like this topping over the typical pearls is the fact that I do not have to chew excessively with every sip. 

I think it is safe to say that this flavour still remains my favourite, and for good reasons.

All in all, this challenge gave me an overall perspective of my changing bubble tea habits and preferences. I had gone from drinking one cup daily to bi-weekly, and from enjoying flavours that are rather artificial to a preference for sophisticated and articulate taste profiles.

Even if taste buds may change over the years, I think most like me who fell in love with bubble tea years ago still do have a certain go-to drink no matter how rare they may consume it.

This challenge was also a reminder that my metabolism is no longer as robust as my teen days. Drinking so many cups of bubble tea made me really lethargic and bloated.

So as you revisit some of your old likings, do remember to have them in moderation. I’m certainly looking forward to getting the da hong pao and tea lattes again, albeit not so soon!


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