Bubble tea varies little from one country to another, but there are many variations in each region. The common element is the tapioca pearls or jelly candies added to the drinks.
Milk tea, cold:
This is the original variety. The traditional recipe uses artificial coffee whitener in a black tea such as Earl Grey, and the milky tea is shaken with ice. 'Bubble milk tea' or 'pearl milk tea' gets its name from the bubbly froth that forms on the top as a result. To sweeten the tea, sweetened pudding and jelly-like candies made from tapioca starch were added. A spoon was originally provided to retrieve the pearls from the bottom of the cup, but an oversized straw is used now instead. The tea may be brewed as most teas are, or occasionally is a premix liquid or a powder-based creation.
Milk tea, hot:
Generally this is simply a black tea with milk or whitener, to which pearls have been added. Since the tea is hot, a tall spoon is still generally provided instead of a straw.
Black tea, hot:
Similar to hot milk tea, but without the milk or whitener.
This is essentially iced tea (brewed or a premix) which may or may not be sweetened (called sweet tea in the United States or just iced tea elsewhere). Served with ice cubes and a straw.
Flavoured tea, cold:
Usually an herbal (non-caffeinated) tea, served cold with iced cubes.
Flavoured tea slush:
Ice and herbal tea (tisane) are blended to create a slush.
Ice and fruit flavouring are blended to create a slush (aka slushee, slurred).
Flavoured milk slush:
Milk or coffee whitener, ice, and fruit flavouring are blended together to form a creamy slush similar to a milkshake.
Pudding milk bubble tea:
Chunks of semi-firm pudding are added to a sweet juice or tea.
Soft serve iced cream or frozen yogurt is blended with ice and a fruit flavouring (frozen, fresh, syrup, or powder).
Flavours are created using either powdered mixes, flavouring syrups, or real fruits - fresh or frozen. Click here to read more about flavours.
Pearls are small, chewy balls similar to ju-jibes. They are made from tapioca / sago flour which has been formed into balls and boiled in sweetened water. The tapioca pearls were called 'boba' by some people in some regions, but the majority of people don't use the term to refer to pearls. Click here to read more about pearls.
Poppers are also small balls but are not chewy. A thin skin surrounds a juicy filling. They burst, or pop, when squeezed. Click here to learn more about poppers.
Flavoured jelly is sometimes offered in a couple flavours or several. Click here to learn more about jellies.
The cups are usually 550mL or 18 fluid oz, clear plastic. The top is usually cellophane which has been thermally fused / sealed to the cup, allowing the customer to take the drink away and not worry about spills. Less common are a plastic dome top, or occasionally a flat soda cup cap is used.
The straws are oversized (10mm or 3/8" diameter) to allow the tapioca pearls or jelly candies to pass through. Almost always, the bottom is cut at an angle to enable you to punch through the cellophane sealed to the cup.
The consensus among accreditations points to a staff member at a Taiwanese teahouse in 1988. Sweetened pudding and tapioca balls were added to black milk tea and quickly became highly popular.