Bubble tea’s time: New outlets arrive as interest perks up in ‘chewy drink’

  • —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An Assam black tea with milk is served at LimeRed Teahouse in Amherst. The recipe includes red beans and brown sugar. STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Assam black tea with milk, from left, strawberry fruit tea and matcha latte, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019 at LimeRed Teahouse in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Katie Robinson, left, and Shelby Wilder have tea in a window seat at LimeRed Teahouse in Amherst, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jeff Nyugen adds jasmine tea to a strawberry fruit tea, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019 at LimeRed Teahouse in Amherst. The recipe includes lychee jelly, strawberry puree and brown sugar. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Proprietor Joe Deng of LimeRed Teahouse has been proudly offering bubble teas and other libations in Amherst since 2011. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Vivi Bubble Tea, one of 70 franchises, has opened in the basement of the Tucker Taft building at 48 North Pleasant St. The two Amherst cafes will soon be joined by Moge Tee, a bubble tea chain that is flourishing in China.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/24/2019 6:46:46 PM

AMHERST— Twenty-five years ago, bubble tea, also known as boba or pearl milk tea, could be found only on the menus of a few Asian restaurants in the region.

Until LimeRed Teahouse opened in 2011 on Main Street in Amherst, and then on Pleasant Street in Northampton a year later, no local cafes specialized in the beverage, created in the 1980s in Taiwan and sometimes called the chewy drink.

LimeRed owner Joe Deng has made bubble tea an exclusive focus of his restaurants since bringing the concept to the region from New York City, but the era of being the area’s sole purveyor is over — with the market for bubble tea seemingly exploding and beginning what Deng calls the “battle of the bubble teas.”

Since April, Amherst’s LimeRed has faced competition from ViVi Bubble Tea, which opened in the basement of the Tucker Taft building at 48 North Pleasant St. and drew long lines of customers in its initial days. Sometime this fall, the two restaurants will be joined by Moge Tee, with signs announcing that it will be taking over the space used for the past 20 years by a Starbucks at 71 North Pleasant St.

Deng can’t say for sure why bubble tea is becoming a craze in the United States, but notes its rise may coincide with more people wanting a nonalcoholic beverage but avoiding a strong cup of coffee.

“The idea with tea is people don’t want things as caffeinated as they used to,” Deng said.

Bubble tea is also an unusual beverage.

“It’s basically about texture and ingredients, in my opinion,” Deng said. “You’re getting a snack and a drink in one cup.”

Brewed tea forms the base of bubble tea and is mixed with either milk or fruit juice. Then, for many of the drinks on the menu, there is the addition of boba, the chewy balls that sink to the bottom of the drink, but are referred to as toppings. These usually include tapioca pearls and balls made from other jellies and puddings, or red beans, the Japanese dessert bean adzuki. Each bubble tea can also be customized to the sweetness level desired.

With the cup sealed at the top, a foam forms at the top when it is shaken, which gives the tea its bubble name. A larger than usual straw is then poked through the seal so both the liquid and boba can be consumed.

At LimeRed, full-fat milk comes from Our Family Farms in Greenfield, rather than the powdered cream in some bubble teas. Deng also uses high-end Assam milk black tea from India, and syrups made from brown sugar, not corn syrup.

Depending on the size of the cup and the choice of toppings, bubble teas can range in price from $4.50 to $6.50.

For Deng, bubble tea represents creativity, as it can be made in many different ways — and many drinks can qualify as bubble tea as the concept continues to be expanded.

Deng said be believes there is room for each of the shops to be successful and enough to differentiate their drinks, observing that customers who like what ViVi is serving probably will not like the bubble tea at LimeRed.

The biggest challenge for a small bubble tea shop is that people coming to Amherst from Boston or New York may be familiar with his competitors.

ViVi is one of 70 franchises in the country. A store manager at the Amherst location declined to comment, and Nick Gu, the local representative, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

According to its national website, ViVi is in the midst of an expansion “with our goal of spreading the footsteps of traditional bubble tea to all parts of the country” and that its stores are “only using ingredients shipped directly from Taiwan” for the “most authentic Taiwanese taste in every sip.”

Moge Tee, which specializes in using cheese cream, which tastes like caramel, topping the tea, is preparing a rapid expansion from its initial outpost in New York City. It already did this in China, where 150 stores are operating.

Its website states its bubble teas have no trans fats and are healthy. “We insist on using only the finest quality teas and fresh cheese imported from Australia. This allows for the fragrance to be fresh and more natural, matching with imported authentic Uji matcha,” or finely ground shade-grown Gyokuro green tea leaves.

What the bubble tea shops all promise is a more fun and relaxed vibe than typically found in coffee shops, Deng said, encouraging customers to stay and set up laptops.

“Bubble tea house don’t look like coffee houses,” Deng said.

At LimeRed, walls are painted white and natural light streams in through the large glass windows. ViVi, even though on the lower level, also has large windows and bright pink walls.

One way to counter the competition is to expand the menu, which Deng said he has been able to do through leasing adjacent space for a Korean fried chicken restaurant, with the kitchen becoming a place to make desserts for LimeRed’s Amherst and Northampton locations. These include honeycomb waffle sundaes and matcha tiramisu, while French macaroons are being served from a New York bakery.

He also understands that customers appreciate environmental responsibility, so he is selling metal straws to regular customers so they don’t have to use plastic straws.

Deng said adaptability is a key as he continues to give customers new experiences, adding matcha and real fruit teas that diversify the menu.

“We’ve expanded the meaning of what bubble tea is,” Deng said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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