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Bubble tea: Coolness in a cup

July 29, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

On a hot day in Taiwan, people turn to the cold drink you can chew - bubble tea.

"It's very popular in Taiwan," said local restaurant owner Frank Cai, who is from Taiwan.

In the states, we've got lemonade and sweet tea to keep us cool when temperatures get hot. But for years, the Taiwanese have been drinking bubble tea to keep cool in the country's tropical climate. It's the sort of drink you'd get at a sit-down restaurant in Taiwan, Cai said.

His restaurant, Fuji Chinese Cuisine and Sushi, opened at a shopping center near Hagerstown Community College about 10 months ago. The restaurant offers 10 varieties of bubble tea.

Bubble tea can look a lot like an iced chai, except it has quarter-sized lumps or "bubbles" made of tapioca or fruit gels floating near the bottom. In order to get the bubbles, the drink is served with a larger diameter straw.

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Cai said Fuji uses a fruit paste similar to what you'd use for a smoothie. The restaurant gets its bubble tea supplies from a wholesaler in Taiwan, Cai said.

The cost of bubble tea ranges from $3 to $5, similar to what you'd pay for a boutique coffee drink, said Hagerstown tea purveyor John Macpherson, co-owner of Spirit of the Lotus Tea Co.

As with coffees, the price of bubble tea price depends on the quality of the tea leaves used and whether the drink has fruit juice or a syrup or flavor powder, "sort of like a flavor shot," Macpherson said.

Bubble tea was brought over to the United States by Taiwanese immigrants and has been largely popular in bigger U.S. cities like Washington, D.C., where Asian and immigrant populations are larger. Macpherson said it's been slow to catch on here in Hagerstown, where, according to recent census estimates, less than 1 percent of the city's population is Asian.

But it seems the idea of offering bubble tea might be gaining some traction.

Spirit of the Lotus sells teas wholesale to businesses and offers some products for individual consumers. But it does not yet sell bubble tea. Macpherson said he and his wife, Siming, who also co-owns the shop, would consider it in the future.

Macpherson said he thinks bubble tea would be more popular if more business offered it.

"Build it, and they will come," Macpherson said.

Shaharazade's Restaurant & Tea Room in Shepherds-town, W.Va., doesn't currently offer bubble tea, said Shaharazade's Lucas Pierce. He said he plans to add it in the fall, when the restaurant revises its menu. The restaurant focuses mainly on Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Persian foods and teas and hosts Middle-Eastern belly dancing events each month.

Vickie Grinder, general manager of the Cozy Restaurant in Thurmont, Md., which houses a tearoom, said the closest thing they offer to bubble tea is a dragon pearl jasmine tea.

"It's not one of our popular ones," Grinder said.

She said a lot of it had to do with the age of the people who typically take tea - a demographic that she said skews 55 and older - and prefers what they would consider "traditional" tea.

"It's just going to take a while to catch on," Grinder said.

But Grinder said bubble teas are gaining popularity with younger demographics and that when the Cozy introduced its tearoom two years ago, a tea master who consulted with her on the menu said that bubble tea was a "must-have" menu item.

Cai said bubble tea hasn't caught on with all of his customers at Fuji.

The restaurant specializes in Thai, Chinese and Japanese food. Cai said he operated a restaurant in Montgomery County, Md., for two years but found that rent was too high there. So he moved his restaurant to Hagerstown.

He said he left Taiwan because there were better opportunities for business owners in the United States.

"Here, you can give customers more options," Cai said.

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