By Annum Khan
"I don't know what part is more interesting, the fact that you have something to chew while you drink, or that when you drink something with whatever you chew, it gives a totally different impression of the drink..."
A group of local college kids walk into Cha For Tea, laughing and talking amongst themselves. They see others they know already inside they happened to bump into and exchange hellos before ordering their boba at the counter. The workers go 'tap tap' on the register's keypad and take down their order. The college kids crowd the waiting area for their drinks. When their names are called they grab big fat straws at the counter, stick them in their drinks and take a seat outside to drink their boba since inside is always too cramped.
There are about eight well known boba shops near Irvine, in the surrounding Orange County area but the most well known for UC Irvine students is Cha For Tea and Lollicup. Cha For Tea is conveniently located across from the campus at the University Town Center, connected to UCI by a cemented bridge used by many students on a daily basis while Lollicup is a few miles down in the popular Diamond Jamboree plaza. Tea Station is another teahouse located on Culver Drive, parallel to Jamboree where Lollicup is located. Geographically, these boba shops surround downtown Irvine creating a rather unexpected culture for tea catered to young people.
At Cha For Tea, the crowd keeps coming, usually students in and out at all odd hours. Another group of local high school kids walk in shortly after and place their order at the register. They start to rearrange tables to sit together and enjoy their tea inside. Workers call out the kids names one by one, signaling them to get their drinks at the counter. A worker mixing drinks calls out "Christopher" five times before the preoccupied high school student gets up to grab his milk tea boba.
The worker behind the counter mixes drinks with energy and takes commands from another employee shouting from the register. This worker does not seem annoyed at his job, with the ongoing crowd of customers and shouts of "order in" coming his way. He seems genuinely happy to be making a constant array of drinks and when he mixes boba into tea within a plastic shaker, he does so with flexing, energetic arms. He does this consistently until his shift ends and it is time to go home but if he feels tired or bored of making drinks, one could never tell from his face.
The boba shop is small for all the people it houses every hour but rather cozy. It is painted yellow with green tiles covering the one wall behind the counter. The employees are always enthusiastically asking customers to try samples when they aren't taking orders or clearing tables. Wooden arches dangle from the roof with accent lightening within creating a contemporary atmosphere that welcomes the young crowd often, especially for a late night sugar fix. 'Ten Ren Tea' gift bags decorate the shop on various shelves. Trendy music plays in the background. Many UCI students come in and out as displayed by their apparel. A couple sits side by side, snuggled up to each other at the back table of the shop enjoying an entree of orange chicken. People come in and out with boba in hand. And the workers say "Hello! Welcome to Cha!" at every group or customer that walks in.
The store manager, Steve Ngo, has been working at Cha 4 Tea the year it opened back in 2000. He started working for Cha part time as a college freshman back then and decided to stay with the company instead of using his ICS degree elsewhere. He explained that boba, also called tapioca, is made from tapioca and sweet potato starch. He also shared that boba is made by boiling it in water but wouldn't disclose any other details because the process is a company's secret. The milk tea boba drink, also known as bubble milk tea, consists of the liquid and small gummy boba balls that fall to the bottom of the drink. At Cha, like at other boba shops, the drink is sold in a clear, plastic cup so one can see the boba and different colors of the tea that range from green, mode, and orange along with a thick, bright colored straw perfect to sip up the boba and tea at the same time. "I think for the kids, its just fun to have something to drink and chew on it at the same time. Also boba absorbs the tea flavor from your drinks very well, so it just goes very well with the sweet tea beverages," Ngo explained about boba as a drink.
Calvin Lie, a UC Irvine student, goes to Cha about three times a week because he prefers the chewiness of their boba. He actually has to limit himself to going only three times a week because he feels there is a self limiting principle involved, and its not cheap. The average drink at Cha is five dollars, equivalent to a meal at In-N-Out. For Lie, coming to Cha has a lot to do with the stress level of his classes because the boba drink gives him a sugar rush helpful for studying. "Its like a snack and drink at the same time. What I particularly like about the milk tea boba is that it tastes different with the boba itself. When you drink it, you start with milk and tea which is not so sweet and then you chew and suddenly their is a burst of sweetness." Lie is a commuter who lives in Alhambra where there is another Cha location but he says the Alhambra location cooks their boba differently. Overall, Lie likes Cha's boba because it is chewy and sweet. What he hates is the boba that is hard on the inside. He has also tried to cook boba himself three times. "It much better to cook boba in large amounts because it is a long process," Lie said. You have to boil it for two to three hours and you need to keep pouring water and sugar while cooking. He still has not gotten a satisfying texture to his boba.
Boba drinks are a trend that started about a decade back and some believed it was a trend that would die out. The San Diego Business Journal published an article in 2004 describing the unique trend as a passing fad but it is still popular today, in the states as well as in Taiwan where milk tea boba originated from. In Irvine, boba is very much a part of young people's lives to nearby UC Irvine and high school students. On the UCI campus, numerous clubs and organizations sell boba drinks from Lollicup, a nearby boba shop that caters to UCI student fundraisers. Lollicup has a chart hung on the wall inside the shop entitled "Battle of the UCI Clubs" that monitors how much money various UCI clubs have fundraised selling boba, creating friendly competition and community involvement. Lollicup specializes in coffee as well as tea drinks but not food like Cha For Tea. Their specialty is with various drink options from slushies and snow to to yogurt and "mochaBlast" options. They also offer several "add-ins" besides boba for their drinks such as jellies, red bean, whipped cream, and milk or egg pudding. Lollicup seems to be much more accessible and community friendly than the typical boba shop due to their fundraising options for UCI student clubs and also because of the shop's atmosphere. Though it is fairly smaller than Cha For Tea, Lollicup has an open kitchen behind the counter where any customer or employee can see the "Simple Reminders" whiteboard hung on the wall for all workers. Many come in just for a drink or spend time inside watching the news on the TV while enjoying their drink. Ngo at Cha For Tea believes that even if boba becomes less trendy, people will always come back for Cha's tea that is grown in Taiwan and sold here through the Ten Ren Tea Company. "It's possible that boba can loose popularity, but we truly believe in the quality of our teas, enough so that even if customers no longer enjoy boba, customers will still come back to enjoy all the teas we brew from them. We are the biggest tea distributor in Taiwan. We grow our own tea, so we have confidence that customers will continue to enjoy the quality tea beverages we provide them without boba," Ngo said.
The true origin of milk tea boba dates back centuries to the growing of teas such as Oolong, black and green tea in Taiwan but the transformation from this traditional drink to a sweeter, milkier, and boba filled one started in the 1980's in Taiwan and made its way internationally in the 2000's. Tea Station is a boba shop in Irvine that stays true to the traditional style tea grown in Taiwan with their numerous options such as original Oolong, but they keep with the boba culture with their milk tea options as well. Ngo explained, "Cha for tea is based off our parent company Ten Ren Tea, Inc. It has been a family company for over 70 years. The younger generations immigrated to US, so they were able to open up retail stores in the states selling only tea leaves."
Ngo also explained the intricate process of brewing tea sold at Cha. Fresh Green Tea leaves are gently brewed under a specific temperature. Then flavoring is added, depending on the type of flavoring the customer prefers, and then it is iced down by shaking the tea in martini style shakers. In Taiwan, the process of icing down the boba drink is done with a machine instead of by hand according to the youtube video, "Making Bubble Tea in Taiwan." Ngo further explained that depending on the types of tea you are brewing, just like brewing coffee or beer, brewing at the right temperature will determine the aroma and bitterness of the tea. There are different brewing temperatures as well. For instance, green tea is a delicate tea, so you will need a lower temperature water. The food at Cha is also cooked with specific kinds of tea flavoring. For instance, Cha's curry chicken combo uses Jasmine tea and Pu-Erh tea is used in beef stew. There are health benefits in adding tea in cooking because it helps with digestion according to Ngo.
Whether people come for these health benefits or just for a sugar rush like Lie, Cha is always busy from 9am to 1am serving boba hungry customers constantly in the little jam-packed teahouse. But maybe they coming for a much more simple reason as Lie expressed, "I don't know what part is more interesting, the fact that you have something to chew while you drink, or that when you drink something with whatever you chew, it gives a totally different impression of the drink; the difference can make it really nice or really bad." But Lie chews it over in his head, "Its something nice to have."
Interview with Steve Ngo-Cha For Tea Manager-2/1
Interview with Calvin Lie-UCI student- 3/1
Observation: Cha For Tea, Lollicup, Tea Station
Interviews with random people-not quoted in article-various times
Sources from UCI Library research: SDBJ article, history of Taiwan, boba as trend