Order like a pro with this bubble tea breakdown

Amy Wong
The Seattle Times

Summertime is here, it’s hot out, so cool off with the ultimate iced beverage: boba — commonly served as a sticky sweet milk tea, with warm, chewy tapioca pearls.

Boba, also known as bubble tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and arrived in the U.S. a decade later. At this point in 2021, it’s fairly ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest. Over time, the boba universe has grown to include a variety of toppings and flavors, from pudding to cheese foam. To create this boba guide, we talked to Seattle-area boba shop owners for their tips on what to order (and in what combo!).

You don’t have to get tapioca, but this is the topping integral to the classic boba drink. Good quality tapioca is fresh and elastic — stale pearls will be slightly hard, lacking the signature chewy texture. According to boba enthusiast Seattle Times video journalist Corinne Chin, the BEST cup of boba will have a warm bottom, as it means that they’ve very recently cooked the tapioca.

How to order

Not every boba shop is the same. The drink/topping options vary at each place, but here are the basics:

Ice level: If it’s a hot day, maybe stick with a regular amount of ice, but if it’s colder out, you can request less or half ice. If you want a particularly strong drink you can ask for no ice, although the best chilled teas are best consumed ice-cold.

Sweetness: Some of the fruit-flavored teas can get pretty sweet. Want to cut back on the sugar? Try ordering your drink at 75% or 50% sweetness. Or you can get 0% sweet, which cuts all the added sugar but maintains the drink’s flavor.

Hot or cold: What temperature do you like your drink? Keep in mind, some toppings like tapioca and pudding may melt in hot drinks.

Drink variety

Milk tea: The classic, milk tea is THE boba drink. Black, oolong and jasmine are the most common tea bases, combined with milk, creamer and usually some other flavor (anything from taro, to strawberry, to brown sugar). Many shops offer dairy alternatives for the lactose intolerant. If you’re thinking about which tea base to get, consider that black is the most caffeinated with a bold, hearty flavor, while jasmine and oolong taste more light and floral.

Tea: Maybe you wanna scrap the milk altogether? That’s cool. There are many plain iced teas often infused with fruity flavors (think: lemon green tea, peach black tea, etc.).

Slushies/Smoothies: Slushies and smoothies are the most derivative from classic boba found in Taiwan but I say … what the heck, order what you want. If it’s a hot day and you’re craving an icy blended drink, go for one of these.

Bubble options

Boba/tapioca: The classic topping people think of when they get bubble tea. These chewy, dark pearls are made from sugar and tapioca flour and pair well with any drink.

Crystal boba: Similar in size and shape to regular boba but made with agar (an algae-based ingredient) and comes in a whitish-clear color. It’s chewy, but not as gelatinous as boba. Its neutral, sweet flavor pairs well with any type of drink.

Popping boba: Similar in size and shape to the other bobas but very different in texture and flavor. Popping boba has a thin, edible membrane encasing a small pocket of fruit juice that bursts when you bite into it. This topping complements fruity iced teas.

Egg pudding: A silky-smooth egg-based custard that’s not too sweet and goes well with milky drinks. Pudding appears as yellow globs that sink to the bottom but slurp up easily when you use a straw. It doesn’t require the chewing that other toppings do.

Jellies: With a chewy texture similar to boba, jellies might be better suited for those who like having texture in their beverage but want to give their jaw a break. Jellies are soft like jello and can come in different flavors, including grass, mango, coffee, coconut and more. Their refreshing flavors pair well with fruity iced teas.

Cheese foam: A relatively new phenomenon, this is a topping that floats at the top of your drink, meant to be consumed without a straw so you can get a good ratio of foam to tea. Cheese foam combines milk, cream cheese and a sprinkle of salt — sort of like a liquid cheesecake. If you love a salty-sweet combo, order cheese foam atop a plain iced black or green tea.

Red bean: This is made from dry red beans and sugar. It’s sweet and a little earthy, and it keeps its shape even in hot drinks, pairing well with taro and matcha.

So what should you get? Sure, you can stick with the classics — black milk tea with tapioca pearls — but there are many options.

Every person I spoke to advised that you should experiment! One of bubble tea’s greatest joys is how customizable it is. So no matter your taste — maybe you prefer coffee over tea or don’t want something sweet, or like fruity flavors — you should be able to find something you like!