Taste-testing bubble teas
by Tabi Walters and LR Nunez
From the February, 2020 issue
Originating in Taiwan, bubble tea has been migrating across the world for the last four decades. Locally, Bubble Island introduced the trendy drink, with its colorful straws and chewy tapioca "bubbles," in 2002. Ann Arbor boba seekers had an abundance of options even before franchises from Taiwan-based chains Chatime and CoCo Fresh opened last year.
I discovered bottled milk tea at an anime store called Wizzywig twenty years ago. I wasn't sure at first that adding bubbles (also known as boba) would improve it, but it was love at first sip. And when I began ordering bubble tea to be delivered to the Observer office, I found I wasn't alone in my fondness for this tasty beverage.
Discussing our favorite drinks, we realized we have a wide range of likes. That led to a plan for a joint tasting. Accompanying me in this journey were calendar editors Ella and Maggie, Marketplace Changes writer Sabine, and designer LR.
We ordered classic milk tea with bubbles from Bubble Island, Chatime, CoCo Fresh, and Sweeting's South U location. If adjusting the sweetness was an option, we chose 30 percent. And, just for fun, we ordered a flavored drink from each place. Since flavor options vary, we didn't include those reviews in the final tallies.
Sampling so many teas side by side opened our eyes to aspects we may have otherwise missed. But though the results surprised me and a few others, they haven't changed our bubble tea drinking habits. We still have our favorite places that we enjoy for our own reasons.
With a table full of labeled paper cups--and some spills from less than ideal pouring--our tasting began. We each scored each drink separately for tea, bubbles, and overall flavor/quality; looking over menus, we also rated the selection at each place. The chart averages those results, with five bubbles being our most liked and one being the least.
Chatime and CoCo Fresh tied for first for tea flavor, with Sweeting
a close second. While the others can adjust sweetness levels to order, Bubble Island's brew is premade, and its overpowering sweetness put it in last place for most--though not all--reviewers. (If you ask, they will make it less sweet by mixing it with their green tea.)
Though Maggie lived in Taiwan as a student, this was her first experience with Chatime. She was happy to find she enjoyed it quite a lot. Both LR and I, longtime Sweeting patrons, were surprised to find we liked Chatime's tea flavor best. (LR even asked to taste blindfolded, so she could give an unbiased opinion.)
Our sweet-tooth tasters, on the other hand, described Chatime, CoCo Fresh, and Sweeting with terms like "bold" and "bitter." It's true--with less sugar, more tea flavor comes through.
Those of us who enjoy a light sweetness noted the creaminess and strength of our favorites' flavors. And we all found that the brewed teas from CoCo Fresh, Chatime, and Sweeting carried more flavor than those made from powdered mixes. For those, comments included "chalky" and "watery."
Whether you call them boba or pearls, the tapioca balls are what make bubble tea special. While you can get many other mix-ins, from pudding to red beans, for this test we stuck with the classic milk tea. (Fun tip: A number of our reviewers noted that cafes let them sample many of their other toppings, especially when business is slow.)
It was no surprise to find the bubbles from each place tasted very similar--what really set them apart was quality and consistency of texture. Some we found overly mushy or overcooked, while others were harder to different degrees. Much like the taste of the tea, texture is a personal preference. Sabine enjoys a harder, chewier bubble, but I like the really soft and gummy ones.
Sweeting topped the menu comparison--no surprise given the immense variety of ways to customize your drink there. Bubble Island ranked lowest, with the fewest options and the least flexibility on customization. CoCo Fresh and Chatime fell in the middle. For many of the reviewers, that put them in the Goldilocks zone, as in "just right"--not so many choices that it was overwhelming but not so few that there was no flexibility.
Though they didn't figure into our calculations, the flavored drinks were rated positively at all locations. Views varied only in personal preference for the fruit flavors infused into them--peach, melon, strawberry, and a tropical mix. A few tasters did volunteer that if it were summer, they'd prefer one of the smoothies Sweeting and Bubble Island serve then.
I was sad that my own favorite, Sweeting, was brought down by bubble quality on the day we ordered. A number of tasters wrote in their favorite Sweeting orders on their ballots and explained why they still consider the cafe their favorite. For logistical reasons, we ordered only from the Sweeting on South University. Maggie, Sabine, and LR all commented that they prefer the Briarwood mall location, which uses a different menu.
This was an enlightening experiment, albeit not a very scientific one. As I type, I'm sipping my third bubble tea of the day and delighting in the thought of my next bubble tea adventure.
Bubble Island, 1220 South University. (734) 222-9013. Mon.-Sat 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun. noon-1 a.m.
Chatime, 340 Maynard. (734) 531-6896. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. chatime.com
CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice, 1731 Plymouth Rd. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. en.coco-tea.com
Sweeting, 1213 South University. (734) 213-3300. Daily 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. facebook.com
The Joy of Boba
"It's like eating eyeballs!" my boss once said about the tapioca marvels known as boba when she heard me gushing about them. While the texture isn't for everyone, boba--the tiny spheres of gooey treasure at the bottom of bubble tea--comfortingly remind me of coconut-milk desserts from my grandmother's native Philippines.
When Chow started offering bubble tea within walking distance from my home, I excitedly brought my son on the familiar quest of trying the newest bubble tea in Ann Arbor. That day, Chow's options were a premixed watermelon drink and premixed tea. Preferring a fresh brew, I asked if they would sell me just the bubbles, which they happily handed over in abundance.
Armed with a cup of boba and a plan, we marched around the corner to Sweetwaters cafe for their Iron Goddess and went to work. I halved the bubbles between us, pouring a dash of fresh milk and honey with the oolong in my concoction and straight-up milk in his. Like a bubble tea D&D alchemist, I transformed the ingredients into a boba-fied Elixir of the Gods.
The bubble tea closest to my heart, though, is the one we make at home, with extra love. The organic tapioca flour and coconut milk are bought from Arbor Farms around the corner from the Observer office. The teas are loose-leaf. The dough's only ingredients are the flour and hot water. My son and I roll and form it, laughing at the lopsided pearls that turn into small, perfect moons as we roll them in our hands.
If we have a straw saved from our bobadventures, we'll use it to slurp up our homemade boba, sweetened with pure maple syrup or smoky from dark brown sugar. But we are also deeply content eating the bubbles with a spoon out of a mason jar filled with rich coconut milk. It reminds me of ginataang bilo-bilo, the sweet coconut soup served at my mom's, a shared ritual of tapioca magic.
[Originally published in February, 2020.]
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