What’s the lowdown on the unique pick-me-up treat that is bubble tea?
The first bubble tea shop in Singapore opened in Marina Square way back in 1992. Back then, the concoctions were served in cocktail glasses. The drink proved a big hit, and by 2001 it had reached a peak in popularity. After that, though, people seemed to go a bit frosty on the drink. The bubble tea bubble had burst!
Never fear, though: bubble tea is once again the hottest cool drink in Singapore. Some places see customers waiting for more than an hour just for that sip of their number one obsession.
So, which one is the best? To find out, we sent our intrepid Review Crew on a taste test around the Orchard area. Joining us in our Crew line-up this time, we had one true bubble tea expert, one fan of the drink, two women who’d tried it only once before, and one bubble tea virgin. Most bubble tea stalls allow you to choose your percentage of sugar, so we opted for the lowest available sugar level at each spot.
Bubble tea fast facts
- Bubble tea originated in Taichung, Taiwan in the 1980s.
- An average-sized bubble milk tea with 100 percent sugar contains 20.5 teaspoons of sugar. Good thing you can change the sugar level to your liking!
- The chewy pearls in the drink are generally made out of tapioca powder; they’re boiled and soaked in simple syrup. The brown sugar ones are usually made out of tapioca and brown sugar.
1. Gong Cha
Sugar level: 30%
This spot is an old standby in Singapore and is one of the largest bubble tea outlets in the world. We found the tea in the Fresh Milk Tea with Pearls ($3.80) a bit light and the pearls chewy. “The pearls are a good size, but it’s not very memorable,” said one of the Crew. Another added, “This would be good if you’re quite thirsty.” The Brown Sugar with Fresh Milk and Pearls ($4.30) had a rich, strong, almost caramel flavour that we all thought was pretty darn good, even though the pearls were a little too small for our liking. “There’s a darker, caramel, sweeter taste to this, which stays with you longer.” And hey, as bang for your buck goes, it’s pretty good too.
Location: Wisma Atria
Sugar level: 30%
LiHo is another chain that’s been around for quite a while. The Brown Sugar with Fresh Milk and Pearls ($3.50) had bigger and softer pearls than the previous store, which we all liked, and the tea flavour was a bit stronger. “The milk isn’t as strong as at Gong Cha, but it’s good enough.” Our expert often orders the Avocado Milk with Brown Sugar Pearls ($5.10), which none of the rest of us much enjoyed. “It’s like healthy meets unhealthy … which is just wrong,” said one of the Crew; “Not what I would normally gravitate towards, but not disgusting,” added another.
3. KOI Tea
Location: Lucky Plaza
Sugar level: 25%
Hands down, Koi gave us the most pearls per cup, and a great pearl-to-tea ratio. Having said that, the pearls aren’t that large. And maybe you can have too many pearls? As one reviewer said, “There are so many pearls, it’s hard to focus on the tea.” The store’s most popular drink is Golden Pearl Milk Tea ($3.60), which had a lovely easy-to-drink tea flavour. The second most popular drink is Milk Tea with Taro ($4.20), whose pearls were made out of taro instead of tapioca. This is obviously well-liked by many, but not us: “It tastes too healthy!”
4. Tiger Sugar
Sugar level: 50% and 25%
This pricey place usually has massive lines of up to an hour. Our tip: go in the morning before lunch, like we did. The Brown Sugar Milk with Pearls ($5.10) was downright delicious and might well be worth the wait, though be forewarned: the lowest available sugar on this one is 50 percent. “This would be a perfect drink if we could choose the sugar level,” said the Crew. The Milk Tea with Brown Sugar ($5.30) was rich and creamy – really creamy, because they use real cream! This gives the drink a “rich, luxurious flavour”. But the best part about this place has to be the pearls. They are big – really big – and chewy. We can see why people are obsessed.
5. The Alley
Location: Cineleisure Orchard
Sugar level: 25%
This brand new spot offered the only sit-down café-type area of the locations we visited. It also sells pastries (as if we needed more sugar!). The Milk Tea with Pearls ($4.30) had a really special almost floral tea flavour that we all slurped right up. The Brown Sugar with Milk ($6) was the priciest drink of the day, but probably worth it as it was soooo good. The milk was creamy and the medium sized pearls had just the right chewiness and flavour, though the tea was not as flavourful as the plain milk tea.
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This article first appeared in the September 2019 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!