Boba By The Numbers
Image Credit: Shades of bubble tea

OVER SUNDAY, January 29, you may have noticed the Google doodle dedicated to boba or bubble tea. (Maybe you even played the game several times, like we did, drunk on the thought that you were clearly a boba barista par excellence.)

How this Taiwanese drink became a global fad is an intriguing story at the crossroads of the Starbucks phenomenon, rise of aloe and coconut water-based drinks, and bubble tea's sushi-like trajectory towards widespread popularity.

But while this contemporary aspect of its history is well-charted, less so is its past. There are conflicting reports about its origins, especially since the term "bubble tea" itself predates the inclusion of the all-important tapioca pearls in the drink. The "bubble" referred to the froth or foam that developed on top of milk tea shaken with ice. "Boba", on the other hand, derives from the nickname for Hong Kong actress Amy Yip; she was famous for her impressive bust, which 'boba' is also Chinese slang for.

In Taiwan, locals refer to the drink as "pearl milk tea" (zhenzhu naicha), but it is also known by several other names, including boba tea, boba ice tea, boba nai cha, pearl ice tea, black pearl tea, among others. The tapioca pearls used in the tea are white and hard in their original form, but turn soft, translucent, pliant and a lustrous brownish-black after being boiled in water and steeped in caramelised sugar for several hours. It is vital that the pearls or boba have a texture that Taiwanese call "QQ" (squishy but chewy).

Today, bubble or boba tea comes in a range of flavours and colours, including some fruit and cocktail variants that do not have any tea at all, or drinks in which the foam has been made with powdered cheese, or where the tapioca pearls have been replaced with jelly, chia seeds and the like. Conventionally though, boba was served in the milk tea, brown sugar, taro flavoured, black tea versions.

Here's a look at boba by the numbers.

$2 billion: Value of bubble tea market in 2019

$4.7 billion: Value it is expected to cross by 2027

800: Number of McDonald's outlets in Germany that served bubble tea back in 2012

3,000: Percentage increase in bubble tea orders over 2018 across Southeast Asia

21,000: Number of Taiwanese shops in 2019 selling bubble tea

1890s: Era when tapioca, from which the pearl-like "boba" is produced, came to Taiwan from Brazil, through Japanese invaders

1980s: Decade in which bubble tea as we now know it, was created in Taiwan

4 million: Debt (in Taiwanese dollars) plaguing one of the creators of boba tea, after his previous hotpot business floundered

10: Number of years the court battle raged over who (among two parties) could claim credit for being boba tea's rightful creator 

2020: Year when the official bubble tea emoji was introduced

5: Number of ingredients in the most basic version of boba (black tea, milk, sugar, ice and tapioca pearls).