Bubble tea odyssey

I went to bubble tea school and visited the world’s first bubble tea shop…

Drinking a freshly-made milk bubble tea through a straw. The person's face is obscured by a licking-their-lips emoji.
Step 11: Enjoy.

It's supposedly definitive that bubble tea was invented in Taiwan. But the inventor’s identity is unclear: teahouses in Taichung and Tainan each claim the title.

In Taichung, the Chun Shui Tang teahouse (春水堂人文茶館) began serving iced tea in the early 1980s, after its founder observed the popularity of iced coffee in Japan. In 1987, his product manager added black tapioca balls on a whim, fellow employees loved it, and bubble tea was born. Maybe.

A year earlier, the owner of Tainan’s Hanlin Tea Room (翰林茶館) spotted white tapioca balls in a local market. In a flash of inspiration, he took some home, added them to cold milk tea, and bubble tea was born. Maybe.

Lawsuits from both sides—and a decade of litigation—failed to reach a conclusion. The courts ultimately decided that, as a non-trademarked, non-patented product, anyone can make bubble tea and therefore it’s not necessary to know the inventor. A friendly, equivocal, unsatisfying outcome.

So, in an unfriendly, unequivocal, but very satisfying move, I’ve decided to call it:

Taichung’s Chun Shui Tang teahouse is the true inventor of bubble tea.

Which is convenient, because that’s where I went yesterday, on a 340km round-trip bubble tea odyssey…

A friend from New Zealand joined me for this quest. Our journey started at Kaohsiung’s Zuoying High Speed Rail Station.
Eight minutes after departure, we were traveling at 302km/h. The bullet train took 40 minutes to reach Taichung, 170km away.
Daytime view looking from an elevated railway platform across some open fields, with city high rises and hills in the distance.
It was 21ºC and sunny when we arrived at Taichung High Speed Rail Station.
A headrest-mounted TV inside a taxi. The TV screen shows a close-up of a clothed woman’s chest.
The TV in the taxi was playing a long-form ad for the upcoming presidential election. But the moment I clicked the shutter, it was interrupted by whatever this was.
An elderly man sits alone drinking tea at one of many outdoor tables. Behind him is the entrance to a Chun Shui Tang teahouse, with stone lions either side of the door, plsu a 1.5 meter-tall sculpture of a glass of bubble tea next to one of the lions.
Our first stop was this Chun Shui Tang teahouse in West District, where we’d be attending bubble tea school.
An empty teahouse, with Buddha statue in the foreground. An elaborately-painted side cabinet with a teapot on top is visible in the center of the room, with numerous four-seater wooden tables beyond it.
We were directed to the third floor for our class.
Eight chairs around a long wooden table. The tabletop is covered in disposable cups, ice buckets, and various ingredients and tools.
In a side-room, this table had been pre-set with ingredients.
A laminated sign titled ‘Wash Hands Correctly, Keep Disease Away!’ The sign includes five steps: wet your hands, rub hands with soap, rinse with water, rinse the faucet, and dry hands.
But first, handwashing! The five steps to “Keep Disease Away!” included rinsing the faucet after use (step 4).
A transparent plastic cocktail shaker filled with ice.
First up, we made black iced tea. Our excellent teacher mostly spoke Chinese, which my friend translated. Step 1: Fill the cocktail shaker with ice.
Golden liquid can sugar in a measuring container.
Step 2: Pour a precisely-measured 10mL(?) of liquid cane sugar over the ice. I said I preferred no sugar, but was told to stick with the official recipe for round one, as this quantity of sugar would best accentuate the tea.
70mL of black tea in a measuring jug.
Step 3: Add 70mL of freshly-brewed black tea.
Three people shaking cocktail shakers. The faces of the men on the left and right side of the table are obscured by shaking-style emoji faces. The female teacher is unobscured at the far end of the table.
Step 4: Shake for an eternity.
A paper cup filled with frothy black iced tea.
Step 5: Admire the frothy black tea.
A person enjoying a cup of black tea. Their face is obscured by a licking-lips emoji.
Step 6: Enjoy.
Bubble tea ingredients in container on a wooden table. Visible are black tea leaves, uncooked black and white tapioca balls, and liquid cane sugar.
Next up, we’d be making classic bubble milk tea. We started by smelling the tea leaves and inspecting the tapioca balls. Part of Chun Shui Tang’s founding story is that its bubble tea was the first to be made with black tapioca balls (shown here in uncooked form). The black balls were soft and crumbly, while the white balls were extremely hard. After fingering lots of balls, I concluded black balls are truly superior, and looked forward to putting them in my mouth.
A few dozen cooked black tapioca balls in a paper cup.
Step 1: Scoop some cooked tapioca balls into a cup.
A plastic measuring jug containing 70mL of black tea.
Step 2: Measure 70mL of freshly-brewed tea. This tea was intentionally stronger than what was used for the black tea, in anticipation of…
Creamer powder being scooped out of a metal container.
…Step 3: Diluting it with two level scoops of creamer.
A small handheld whisk mixing black tea and creamer.
Step 4: Whisk for an eternity.
A transparent plastic cocktail shaker filled with ice.
Step 5: Refill the cocktail shaker with ice (this time the liquid cane sugar was optional).
A transparent plastic cocktail shaker containing milk tea and ice.
Step 6: Pour over the mix of tea and creamer.
Two people sitting either side of a table covered in bubble tea ingredients, shaking cocktail shakers.
Step 7: Shake for an eternity.
Pouring shaken milk tea from a cocktail shaker into a paper cup of tapioca balls.
Step 8: Pour over the tapioca balls.
Pouring ice into a paper cup of bubble tea.
Step 9: Add the remaining ice.
Whisking a cup of iced bubble tea.
Step 10: Whisk for an eternity.
Drinking a freshly-made milk bubble tea through a straw. The person's face is obscured by a licking-their-lips emoji.
Step 11: Enjoy.
We were awarded certificates of participation and gifted plastic cocktail shakers. And with that, class was dismissed.
A messy tabletop covered in paper cups, kitchen utensils, and bubble tea ingredients.
I rate the black tea 8/10. It was good, but the standard sugar level was (subjectively) too high. However, the bubble tea was incredible—the best I’ve had. An easy 10/10, for which I took none of the credit but all of the pleasure.
Point-of-view photo from the back seat of an Uber.
At this point, the bubble tea odyssey was only half done. Gifts in hand, we caught an Uber to another Chun Shui Tang…
Exterior of the famous Chun Shui Tang teahouse. It's nighttime. There are scooters parked in a row outside the shop, which features a tiled roof and red lanterns.
…The world’s first bubble tea shop, the Chun Shui Tang teahouse on Siwei Street, Taichung, Taiwan. (Established 1983; bubble tea since 1987.)
Interior of the original Chun Shui Tang teahouse. A customer sits at a table looking at his phone.
We got a table near the back…
A large glass cup of iced milk bubble tea, on a table alongside various small dishes such as a bowl of noodles and vegetables, and some bread.
…And ordered bubble tea, of course. I gave this one a 9. (My guided effort had been marginally fresher.)
A bullet train arriving at Taichung High Speed Rail Station.
Two-and-a-half hours later, we were boarding the bullet train back to Kaohsiung. It’s not the cheapest way to visit a teahouse, but it works for a 340km same-day round-trip. Ganbei! 🧋

On an unrelated note…

Today, January 5, 2024, marks my one-year anniversary in Taiwan. I forgot to celebrate. But I’ll be celebrating my one-year anniversary in Kaohsiung—this coming Monday—by leaving town. I’ll be embarking on a solo huandao (環島), literally ‘around the island’, circumnavigation of Taiwan by scooter.

I plan to post daily updates, starting the night of January 8. Weather, scooter, and body permitting, the trip will take 11 days.

My first 24 hours in Taiwan were challenging in unexpected ways. For my one-year anniversary, I’m hoping for a smoother ride.