Pearl milk tea (PMT) is a drink from Taiwan, especially popular in communities with a significant number of Asian people, including Fremont, CA (where I grew up) and Berkeley, CA (where I went to college). It can be called any of
- boba tea
- boba milk tea
- tapioca milk tea
- bubble tea
- bubble milk tea
Naming sidenote: I observe that most people from California (at least from the Bay Area and LA/SD) tend to call this “boba”, with “pearl milk tea” a distant second. The name “tapioca milk tea” appears at Tapioca Express, one of the chains serving PMT and other Taiwanese snacks, but not many other places in my experience. Meanwhile, “bubble tea” appears to be the usual name on the east coast (or at least in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, where I’ve consumed PMT myself).
The basic ingredients of PMT are milk, tea, and tapioca pearls (aka boba). It is usually served chilled, though many PMT-serving establishments do serve it hot on request. Common modification of this basic formula include
- leaving out the milk or substituting something else for the milk (e.g. soy milk, almond milk, condensed milk, evaporated milk, half and half)
- using different kinds of tea; black tea is the standard, but other teas used include green tea, oolong tea, and various herbal teas.
- flavoring the tea using fruits, artificial flavoring, or other materials
- using other toppings instead of or in addition to the pearls (e.g. grass jelly, pudding, aloe)
A number of people do use milk tea powder instead of actual milk and tea, then market their drink as having milk tea. Personally, I refuse to accept such a drink as being legitimate PMT.
The basic (and simplified) method of preparing PMT is as follows:
- Boil the tapioca pearls until soft, yet chewy.
- Mix brown sugar (or honey) and water, then let the pearls sit in the mixture.
- Brew the tea.
- Add milk and a sweetener to the tea, mix, and let chill.
- Spoon the pearl/syrup mixture into a container, then pour in the milk tea.
This may seem somewhat simple to one with some basic cooking skills, but the difficulty is in the details (e.g. how long to boil the pearls, the correct ratios of milk, tea, and sugar), and not all PMT is good, as we discuss next.
I have consumed a number of PMT drinks from many restaurants, cafes, and tea shops over the years. My criteria for judging PMT include
- Texture of the tapioca pearls. The pearls must be chewy enough to provide some level of resistance to one trying to bite into them, and they must also be soft as to not break one’s teeth (to use an extreme example). The ideal texture is often called “QQ”, from Taiwanese slang.
- Flavor of the tapioca pearls. I expect that the tapioca pearls are placed in a slightly sweet syrup (often made with brown sugar or honey), enhancing the flavor of the pearls.
- Consistency of the milk tea. It should not be as thin as water, as is common for tea when served alone. This happens when there isn’t enough milk. (It shouldn’t be too thick either, but I suspect that is only likely when using creamer instead of or alongside milk.)
- Flavor of the milk tea. The milk tea should taste like milk and tea! In particular, the taste of the tea should be strong enough to be noticeable, and the milk should not overpower the tea. Also, it is usually prudent to add at least some sweetener to the milk tea.
Establishments that serve PMT often get the first (pearl texture) or the last (milk tea flavor) points wrong. I’ll discuss these in more detail.
- Pearl texture: If one doesn’t boil the tapioca pearls for long enough, or if the pearls sit out for too long, the pearls may end up being too hard. On the other hand, if the tapioca pearls are boiled for too long, they become far too soft, offering no resistance to the consumer. Getting the timing right can be difficult, and while I don’t fault those that veer a little off course, having pearls that go too far in either direction is a fatal mistake.
- Milk tea flavor: Getting a good ratio of milk, tea, and sugar can be quite difficult, from personal experience, and if one isn’t careful, the milk tea could end up being very bland from not making the tea strong enough or adding too much milk. It could also be too sweet or not sweet enough, from adding too much or too little sugar. In my opinion, most tea shops tend to make their milk tea too sweet. While some may shrug it off or even prefer it when the milk tea is very sweet, it can ruin the tea completely, often masking the flavor of the tea.
While it may seem that I’m rather picky, there are decent PMT drinks out there. PMT fails only when one or more of these criteria are completely off.
In the past couple of years, I’ve visited a number of places that serve PMT, usually evaluating the standard PMT (black milk tea with tapioca pearls, regular sweetness). Their locations include the San Francisco Bay Area (SF, Berkeley, Palo Alto, Fremont, Newark), Atlanta (Doraville and Midtown), and Pittsburgh (Oakland and Squirrel Hill). In (hopefully) the near future, I’ll have more PMT reviews posted here.
I’ve compiled my reviews of PMT in and around Atlanta, from the summer of 2014, on one page here. The places I reviewed were
- Kung Fu Tea
- Sweet Hut
- Paris Baguette
- Milano Bakery
- Honey Bits
- Honey Bubble
- I attended the Boba Festival at San Jose State University, and tweeted a set of reviews. Here’s the Storify summary of this particular adventure.
- I wrote up a post about tea near the UC Berkeley campus.
My second summer PMT adventure, this time in Pittsburgh, has concluded (for the foreseeable future), and was documented here.