Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and has since spread across the world, even to Columbus. It has an iced tea base combined with milk and a choice of flavoring and sweetener. The “bubbles” are little chewy spheres made of tapioca at the bottom of the drink that come up the straw when drinking the tea.
Bubble tea has found a home of its own in Columbus, including these three spots.
ZenCha Tea Salon
ZenCha Tea Salon carries close to 100 teas and some food items, but its most popular product is bubble tea, according to manager Tricia Gerber.
Gerber said she gets a lot of questions about what the bubbles are.
“I always describe them as little sphere-shaped gummy bears at the bottom of your tea, which sounds gross, but it’s actually good and you just have to give it a try,” Gerber said.
Owner I-Cheng Huang graduated from Ohio State in 1996 with a degree in communication and opened ZenCha in 2002. He said he wanted to include bubble tea on the menu to attract the younger customers, as it is a modern, less traditional tea.
Huang said his goal is to bring people of different cultures together through tea, as it exists in many cultures. The bubble tea itself can also be described as a multicultural product.
“To begin with, the bubble tea usually has the black tea and milk and sugar, that is very British. When we prepare our tea, we shake it in a shaker, and that’s very French. Then we have the tapioca pearl, and that is from Asia,” Huang said.
Huang said that the most popular flavor of bubble tea at ZenCha is taro, a root related to the sweet potato that is often used in flavoring asian desserts. The salon has two locations — one in the Short North at 982 N. High St. and one downtown at 19 E. Gay St.
Kung Fu Tea
Kung Fu Tea, located at 1161 Kenny Centre Mall, is a franchise company based out of New York City, and this location is the first in Columbus. It opened on Oct. 2.
The menu is entirely beverages, including coffee and tea-based drinks and slushes. Tapioca pearls are one of five options of toppings, which also include herbal jelly, nata jelly, red beans and mung beans that are available to add to any of the drinks.
Manager Morgan Cheng is a 2014 OSU graduate in mechanical engineering who got into the food business through working at OSU dining services. Cheng estimated that about 80 to 90 percent of customers get some form of bubble tea, and much of the customer base is international.
“Right now we are trying to get more domestic people because a lot of people here, especially older people, don’t know what bubble tea is,” Cheng said.
The most popular flavor of bubble tea at Kung Fu Tea is the original Kung Fu Milk tea. Cheng sees the tea industry growing even larger.
“It’s become its own industry, it’s not just tea anymore,” he said.
Bubbles Tea & Juice Company
Owner Eric Ling, a 2001 OSU computer science engineering and international business graduate, started Bubbles Tea & Juice Company nearly ten years ago.
Ling said that he was born in Taiwan and grew up with bubble tea, adding that he knew bubble tea was a thing before bubble tea was a thing in the United States.
“I went out to California when I decided I wanted to quit my day job. Back then, juices, smoothies and bubble tea — none of them were popular here in Columbus,” Ling said.
Beyond the milk tea traditionally used for bubble tea, the menu features freshly pressed juices, smoothies, loose leaf teas and iced teas.
Ling said that for the most popular bubble tea flavors, it is a tie between taro and lavender.
Bubbles has a stand at North Market and a kiosk in Easton Town Center.