Bubble Tea vs Boba: Do You Know the Difference?

two jars of bubble tea on wooden bench.

Bubble tea has been gaining popularity over the past couple decades. It’s even popular among people who aren’t normally tea drinkers. But what about boba? I’ll share the difference between the two and break down all you need to know about bubble tea.

What’s the Difference Between Bubble Tea and Boba?

So, the difference is … there is no difference. Well, not exactly. Boba are the little balls found in bubble tea. They are the very reason it’s called bubble tea. They’re also why it’s sometimes called boba tea.

What is Boba?

Boba is what makes bubble tea so unique and fun. They are little balls of tapioca starch commonly called tapioca pearls, boba pearls or boba balls. Boba can be made with other ingredients but tapioca is the most common.

The color of the tapioca pearls can vary depending on what ingredients are mixed with the tapioca. Most boba shops use black tapioca pearls which get their color from the use of brown sugar syrup.

A little bit of history for you (feel free to skip ahead if you started falling asleep as soon as you read the word history). Boba was originally made with cassava root which was brought to Taiwan from South America during Japanese colonial rule.

What is Bubble Tea?

Now that we’ve cleared up boba, what exactly is bubble tea?

A little bit more history (don’t worry, it’ll be quick). Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in Southeast Asia during the 1980’s. Taiwanese migrants brought this new tea with chewy tapioca balls to North America in the 90’s.

Since the migrants reached the west coast first, our neighbors in California and surrounding states were the first to enjoy this drink. People started calling it by different names as well. Some of bubble tea’s other names include pearl milk tea, pearl milk, pearl tea, boba milk tea, bubble milk tea, tapioca tea and tapioca milk tea.

Although it started on the west coast, the tea quickly became popular across the US and in other countries.

Bubble Tea Popularity

Trending in East Asia

Bubble tea gained a lot of popularity with younger people in east Asia including Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, China and Singapore. There it’s a common topic of conversation and on social media. Some of the more popular boba tea shops often have really long lines with wait times up to 30 minutes.

They’ve even started incorporating bubble tea into different kinds of food. Bubble tea has found its way into ice cream, candy, sushi, toast and even pizza. In Japan, teenagers created a slang term (tapiru) that means drinking tapioca tea, and a tapioca tea theme park was built in 2019.

Culture Icon in Taiwan

Meanwhile in Taiwan, where it originated, bubble tea has become a staple of the national culture. April 30th officially became Taiwan’s National Bubble Tea Day in 2020.

Growing in the United States

Most of the larger concentrations of US bubble tea franchises are in the northeast and southwest. As it grew in popularity in the US, boba became somewhat of a cultural identity for Asian Americans.

Bubble tea continues to grow in popularity as more and more bubble tea shops are opening on the east coast and in different states.

What’s in Bubble Tea?

Bubble tea, although it comes with variations, is simply a tea-based drink with chewy tapioca pearls (boba). It’s an iced tea that comes with or without milk. It either comes with a tea base of black, green or oolong tea. More recently, fruit teas are used as well.

Milk is usually powdered or fresh milk. Popular milk alternatives include condensed milk, soy milk, oat milk, coconut milk or almond milk as options.

Toppings

Other than the traditional tapioca pearls, bubble tea can include different toppings made of jelly. Jelly toppings can come in different shapes such as stars, cubes and rectangular strips.

Popping boba has also started to gain popularity. Popping boba are spheres that have fruit juice or syrup in them. You may have even seen these in some build-your-own frozen yogurt chains as well.

Flavors

Bubble tea’s two most popular tea flavors are black pearl milk tea and green pearl milk tea. Another flavor you may see less often is yeunyeung which consists of black tea, coffee and milk mixed.

Blended tea drinks are another variation of bubble tea. These bubble tea variations are blended using ice cream. They also include smoothies that have both tea and fresh fruit blended.

Bubble tea is usually sweetened using simple syrup. However, some boba shops offer a slightly saltier tasting bubble tea by offering milk or cheese foam on top.

Adding jelly or popping boba presents a wide range of flavor options. Jelly flavors include coconut jelly, lychee, mango, grass jelly, coffee, konjac and green tea.

Popular popping boba flavors include mango, coconut, kiwi, strawberry and honey melon. Aloe vera jelly and custard have also been used to add flavor to bubble tea. Aloe vera also provides a healthier option compared to the sweeter fruit flavors.

What’s it Like to Drink Bubble Tea?

Bubble tea is as much a texture experience as a flavor experience. The first time I tried bubble tea was because I am a true tea lover. I just couldn’t let this interesting type of tea remain a mystery to me. But I must admit, seeing those colored balls at the bottom of the drink gave me pause.

So glad I didn’t let that stop me! I found boba to be a sweet and refreshing way to enjoy tea. I Didn’t mind the texture of the tapioca pearls at all. In fact, I found myself searching for them with my boba straw.

The first flavor I tried was black tea pearl milk. The tea was about the same consistency as milk.The boba is soft, smooth and chewy. The overall taste was sweet with just the slightest hint of bitter. Basically, what you would expect of black tea with milk only sweeter.

Pro tip: some shops will let you adjust the sweetness level.

I’ve since tried many different flavors and have never been disappointed. The most recent flavor I tried in a local shop was cookies ’n’ cream. So, if you’re on the fence, go ahead and give bubble tea a try. Love it or hate it, at least you’ll have something to say the next time it comes up in conversation.

Is Bubble Tea Bad for You?

There has been some concern about the high sugar content of bubble tea and its possible long-term contribution to chronic disease such as diabetes. I would say it’s best to think of it as a treat rather than a daily ritual.

As with most things, too much of it probably isn’t the healthiest choice. Enjoying it here and there should be fine though. Obviously, if you have any true concerns about your health or diet, you should speak with your doctor.

Can I Make My Own Bubble Tea?

Yes, friend, you can! Although you can make them yourself, for a simpler and faster route, you can buy tapioca pearls (boba). You can find tapioca pearls at most grocery stores or on Amazon.

From there you just make your tea of choice (I recommend starting with black or green tea). Sweeten to your taste and add milk (if you desire). Throw in your tapioca pearls and add ice. Ice is optional but I like how refreshing it makes the drink.

Bubble tea is something that you can make to your personal preference so don’t be afraid to experiment. Plus, how impressed will your friends be when you’re serving up homemade boba tea at your next get together?!

Bubble Tea vs Boba

Bubble tea and boba are basically the same. Boba are the little balls (tapioca pearls) in the bottom of bubble tea which is why bubble tea and boba tea are used interchangeably.

The drink has a rich history behind it and gained popularity in a wide range of countries. With lots of flavors available, there’s no reason for you not to enjoy this fun and creative drink.