Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Minimalist's Guide to Bubble Tea: A Ranking of NOVA's Best Bubble Tea

What makes a good bubble tea? After drinking bubble tea for about nine years, I finally have the answer. 

The first bubble tea I ever consumed was on the storied Grounds of the University of Virginia. It was the start of the food truck era at UVA's amphitheatre. One student group, allegedly run by Commerce School students, started a stand called TJ Tea (TJ standing for Thomas Jefferson for those of you not well-versed in Virginia history). They had two simple options: green milk tea and black milk tea. A couple of people I had met through various Asian organizations worked for TJ Tea, making the memory even more nostalgic. According to my ex-boyfriend, TJ Tea became a direct competitor to his Asian-interest fraternity and/or-I don't remember-Taiwanese Student Association's bi-annual bubble tea sale. This was true because during my four years of college I never bought a bubble tea from Lambda Phi Epsilon or TSA. TJ Tea was my first exposure to bubble tea, and it was great. Because Asian students ran the storefront, I was blissfully unaware that it was owned by white people and thus of supposedly lower quality than that of the Asian interest groups. 

Edit: Technically when I was in high school, I had a taro smoothie with tapioca pearls from a Vietnamese restaurant in Florida. Vietnamese establishments have long offered fruit smoothies and slushes with tapioca pearls. However, this was before bubble tea became mainstream, and milk tea was still new to me, having grown up in a small rural town in Southwest Virginia with no access to Asian food besides my mom's cooking and Chinese takeout.

During my second year of college, Charlottesville got its very first bubble tea shop less than a mile away from campus on the historic UVA Corner. Berry Berry was founded by the owners of another lunchtime tenant of the amphitheatre: Got Dumplings. They must have witnessed TJ Tea's success. 

By my third year, the Comm School students graduated and TJ tea was no more. That's when my visits to Berry Berry started skyrocketing. The owners of Berry Berry had taken advantage of the frozen yogurt and emerging bubble tea craze. 

Fun Fact: I once saw UVA men's basketball star, now Indiana Pacer, Malcolm Brogdon order Thai Tea with his girlfriend at Berry Berry.

In 2015, during the spring semester of my fourth year of college, Berry Berry rebranded as Got Dumplings, the same name as its food truck, and eventually got rid of their frozen yogurt, now a dying trend, machines to expand seating. With the introduction of a new food ordering app to Grounds around the same time, bubble tea became even more accessible. OrderUp (now incorporated under GrubHub) was not started by a UVA student nor in Charlottesville, but they had a market in Charlottesville, and a ton of my friends worked for them. To promote the app, our friends shared a number of free delivery codes, which could be taken advantage of if you signed up with different email accounts. At the time, they didn't have the capability to check whether you used the same phone number or if you added a period to an existing email address to sign up for an account. My roommates and I took advantage of this, and bubble tea became my apartment's new favorite study companion.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Graduation came, and my boba addiction stopped-mainly because I became vegan and more conscientious of what I was consuming. However, when I moved to NOVA, I continued to drink a lot of Kung Fu Tea believing that their non-dairy milk powder was actually dairy-free until I learned that non-dairy creamer still contains casein, a protein found in cow's milk, so while the lactase was not present, animal cruelty still was. 

From there, I kind of stopped drinking bubble tea aside from the occasional fruit tea at various places because there was simply no vegan milk tea options. That all changed when my friend who was aware of my search went to San Francisco and sent me a Snapchat of a bubble tea shop called Boba Guys offering vegan milk options. There was hope, so when I went to LA in December of 2018, Boba Guys was at the top of my must-visit list. It did not disappoint and set the gold standard for all bubble teas moving forward. 

Back in Virginia, my search continued to dishearten me until I moved back to DC this most recent fall and discovered Ocha Tea, the only bubble tea shop in the Northern Virginia area publicly offering non-dairy milk options until two new boba shops in Alexandria, the only two, opened recently. None of these stores existed the first time I lived in NOVA. New dessert and boba shops continue to open every day in the area, proving that bubble tea continues to remain popular among customers, especially those of Asian descent. 

Note: Several other dessert places in the DMV such as Matcha Cafe Maiko and Who Seek offer dairy alternatives but don't specialize in bubble tea. 

Because of my proximity to these shops, I've been drinking bubble tea regularly again. It was my experience with one of these newer shops that inspired me to write this story. A month ago, I got a "Peach-Mango Fruit Tea" from Monster Tea that really made me question, "What is bubble tea?" more specifically, "What is fruit tea and why is this one so good? What is good bubble tea?" because later that night I could not sleep. I ordered a fruit tea because I didn't want caffeine, yet here I was struggling to sleep because in my mind fruit tea is this: the caffeine-free Celestial Seasonings Fruit Tea Sampler and because Monster Tea had not clearly labeled their menu to include the ingredients in their fruit tea, I was confused. 

I quickly found my answer to "What is bubble tea?" and "What is fruit tea?" with a swift Google search. It turns out I had been drinking fruit tea for years without knowing it had caffeine in it unless otherwise stated, but in my defense, I almost always opted for the milk tea before going vegan. To answer my last question, I needed to break down and analyze the individual components of each of my favorite bubble tea store's drinks-basically what I had just learned on Wikipedia. Using information from the store's website, menu, and Yelp page along with employee interviews, I compiled the following data:

After analyzing the data along with my personal experience, I had my answer, which I now present to you in a list: A Ranking of NOVA's Best Bubble Tea.

6. Spill The Tea

Alexandria's second-newest bubble tea shop ranks at #6 for their watered down version of bubble tea. Based on my experience and that of several other Yelp users, the drinks at Spill the Tea are flavorless with no defining fruit or tea flavor. I had the namesake, Spill The Tea drink of oolong tea and dragon fruit, and there was neither an oolong or dragon fruit taste. The dragon fruit component of the drink came from a syrup and dried fruit bits, which added more to the aesthetic of the drink than the taste. Overall, the drink tasted more like sugar water, which fits with their use of organic sugar as a sweetener. 

I should have known better when I saw the mountain of fruit syrup bottles on the counter behind the cashier. While using fruit syrup is not a sin-many other places on this list use fruit syrup-Spill The Tea has not quite figured out the right combination of syrup, tea, and sweetener to get the flavor of their drinks down. While their tea is loose, who knows what's actually in those tea dispensers behind the counter, and how long it's been sitting there. Based on the watered down flavor of both fruit teas and milk teas, my guess is there isn't enough tea being brewed with the water. Nevertheless, Spill The Tea makes the list by default for offering a vegan milk option and for also offering delicious vegan food.

5. Monster Tea

Monster Tea is actually very good, but their unclear menu, as previously mentioned, ranks it #5 on our list.

Their old website menu is a lot clearer, but the menu above is what I saw in-person. It does not mention which drinks are caffeine-free. Additionally, non-dairy milk options are not listed. I only found out they offered coconut and almond milk when I called and asked. 

Looking at this menu, the Peach-Mango fruit tea looked the best. I ordered it with the fresh mango bits, which I thought automatically came with the drink based on how it's presented on the menu. Imagine my confusion when the cashier asked me if I wanted any toppings. Upon realizing that adding toppings myself meant adding to my cost, I forgoed the strawberry poppers also listed with the drink even though I really wanted them. 

Given all my confusion, I wasn't expecting much in terms of quality. However, at the time, I was suffering from a sinus infection, so I was severely dehydrated and needed something to drink pronto. This tea temporarily cured me. It was so good, making it easy to devour and quench my thirst. In comparison, it took me two days to finish my Spill The Tea. 

Monster Tea has figured out the right combination of tea, fruit flavor, and sweetness using primarily the same type of ingredients as Spill The Tea: loose tea and artificial fruit flavor. However, the difference in quality became clearer when I zeroed in on two minor differences: the tea and sweetener. Monster Tea claims to use their own blend of tea and a homemade syrup to sweeten their drinks. By selectively curating their ingredients and offering fresh fruit toppings, Monster Tea shows that they care about the quality of their drinks. I wish this was clearer and more transparent to customers.

4. Kung Fu Tea

KFT is honestly not my first choice for bubble tea anymore, but I had to put them on the list as an homage to the OG founded way back in 2009 and "Starbucks of bubble tea" [Washington Post]. Despite not offering any vegan milk options at the moment, Kung Fu Tea makes our list at #4 for what Monster Tea doesn't have: transparency. On their website you can find merchandise, news, extensive menu information, and a whole downloadable PDF ingredient list for. each. of. their. drinks. They didn't have to go that hard, but they did, and that's what I love about them. 

KFT has a constantly changing menu, but I've never been confused by the options there because of how clearly labeled everything is on their in-store menu. Okay, so they did deceive me originally with that whole non-dairy milk powder business, but that was all in the past, and with a whole ingredient list online, it's suffice to say that they have atoned for their sins (They should really clarify it though because it is misleading if you take things way too literally like me). 

Quality-wise, the Kung Fu masters, as the founders like to call themselves, researched and sampled many ingredients before coming up with their original recipes. They settled on hand-picked tea leaves from the highest peaks in Taiwan, the birthplace of bubble tea, brewed every three hours, homemade boba cooked every two hours, non-dairy creamer for "the most natural and creamy flavor of milk" and presumably for a longer shelf life and lactose-intolerant customers, cane sugar syrup, and various jams, juices, syrups, and powders to flavor their drinks. 

While I don't go to Kung Fu Tea for bubble tea anymore because I can't drink their milk teas and because I'm not a huge fan of classic fruit tea flavors, I can still rely on them for a unique non-caffeinated and vegan-friendly refresher, something most bubble tea shops are missing. My favorite is the Longan Jujube Tea-it has tea in its name, but trust me, it's caffeine-free. It says so on the menu and ingredient list.

3. Ocha Tea

Ocha Tea really wants you to know that they "only brew premium loose teas, no powders!" but from my research, most places do use loose leaf tea, so I'm not so sure why they chose this marketing strategy. That leaf logo is pretty darn cute though. "Ocha" also means "tea" in Japanese, but the owners are Vietnamese. However, "cha" is tea in Chinese and basically how you pronounce "tra" in Vietnamese so no cultural appropriation here. Besides, Asians have been cooking their neighbors' foods for centuries without managing to offend anyone-something Americans haven't quite figured out. 

Side note: I'm just now realizing how tautological their store name is (it's like saying Sahara Desert or Chai Tea), which reminds me that I totally forgot about TT Lounge in Richmond, where I experienced a bubble tea cafe for the first time.   

I found this picture, and I am clearly drinking a bright orange Thai tea with boba at TT Lounge, which means TJ Tea definitely took my Taiwanese milk tea virginity! (Amazing how a random picture you don't even remember having can serve a purpose nine years later-also it's been nine years since my first year of college?!) Thank you Jeson for taking this photo.

In my opinion, Ocha Tea is the vegan-friendly and better version of Kung Fu Tea. They have a wide variety of drink options besides bubble tea such as chai, matcha, and real fruit smoothies, making it more approachable to newcomers than the traditional bubble tea shop. I've had their Oreo Milk Tea with almond milk and Guava Cooler Signature Fruit Tea, clearly labeled on the menu as a Jasmine tea drink, and can vouch for both. The only thing keeping Ocha Tea from the top two spots is that two of their ingredients are not homemade or fresh: the fruit flavoring and boba, but hey, I wouldn't want to deal with those guava seeds either.

2. Boba Guys

Edit: Boba Guys has since been cancelled:

Since this article was written, I've had TeaDM in Falls Church, VA (they also have a "mini" location in Vienna), which offers plenty of non-dairy drinks in addition to almond milk for their milk teas. I wasn't in the mood for a milk tea during my visit, so I opted for one of their most popular drinks, the Green Iceland of green apple and lychee green tea. The serving sizes here are huge, so it actually took me two days to finish my drink, but it was still tasty the next day. In terms of aesthetics, in addition to their space-themed interior, which we unfortunately did not get to sit in because of COVID, the drinks here also have the coolest names and appearances, such as the color-changing lemonade my sister got.

Okay so Boba Guys isn't technically located in DC yet or anytime soon, but it's so good, it makes the list at #2. Think of Boba Guys as a more mature version of Kung Fu Tea. It's more organic, more sustainable, and more hipster with the same openness and transparency. 

The two ingredients Kung Fu Tea doesn't offer fresh, Boba Guys does. Boba Guys uses actual milk and fruit for all of their drinks. You can visibly see the difference in their Strawberry Matcha Latte of "organic matcha over [your choice of milk] and housemade strawberry purée."

Image result for boba guys strawberry matcha latte

Boba Guys was one of the first cafes to offer Oatly in America and as previously mentioned, the first bubble tea shop I discovered to offer dairy alternatives. My trip to Boba Guys actually coincided with the great Oatly shortage of 2018, which explained why the shop was out of oat milk. Thankfully, they still had almond milk. 

In addition to offering more sustainable milks, Boba Guys most recently introduced bamboo fiber straws as a replacement for traditional plastic straws. They also sell metal straws and drinking vessels for hot and cold drinks on their website. 

Kung Fu Tea sells mugs and cups too, but there's a stark contrast in design. Boba Guys has definitely taken a more mature approach with their merchandising and branding, opting for a simple black and white logo and aesthetic permeating through their stores and website, whereas Kung Fu Tea has taken a much brighter color scheme.

With vastly different menu drinks from traditional bubble tea shops, Boba Guys has set itself apart from the competition. They've revamped classic bubble tea drinks to incorporate local, sustainable, and organic ingredients and offer seasonal menu items with global influences such as the Ponche Navideño Mexicano and Black Sugar Hojicha from their 2019 Fall/Winter menu. 

With this worldly approach, Boba Guys is making sure bubble tea isn't another dying trend. Their success has undoubtedly influenced others to take on the challenge of redefining and introducing bubble tea for the masses not already in love with this classic Taiwanese drink. 

1. Yagut St.

One such restaurant offering bubble tea to new customers is Yagut St. in Old Town Alexandria, a predominantly white neighborhood in a predominantly white city. They take the top spot our list by actually being located in the area and offering high-quality ingredients, vegan milks, classic cafe options like cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and black milk tea, new unique and colorful drinks with names like Night Fall and Lavender Dream, and a highly Instagram-able floral wall with a neon message touting "Treat Yourself." 

According to DataUSA, Non-Hispanic Whites make up more than 50% of the total population of Alexandria. That's 80,100 people in 2017. In Old Town, the percentage is higher at 84.77% according to Meanwhile, Asians make up less than 10% of the city's population.

In comparison, in Annandale where Ocha Tea and the Kung Fu Tea I frequented are located, the White population is a little more than 30% of the city's total population or 14,200 people. Asians are not far behind, totaling about 25% of the city's population or 10,600 people. 

This population disparity explains the lack of Asian restaurants in Alexandria. However, the owners of Yagut St. have been working on changing that since 2011 with the opening of their first restaurant, Caphe Banh Mi. In 2017, they opened their sister restaurant combining Vietnamese food with America's love for brunch, Sunday in Saigon, located right next door to Yagut St.

Note: This makes Yagut St. the third Vietnamese-owned bubble tea shop on this list after Spill the Tea and Ocha Tea. Both Kung Fu Tea and Boba Guys were started by Taiwanese guys, and Monster Tea is Korean-owned (Berry Berry/Got Dumplings is Chinese/Vietnamese). As you can see, it really doesn't matter who makes your bubble tea as long as all the ingredients are there. I think my ex-boyfriend was just salty about TJ Tea stealing his customers. Fans of bubble tea were just happy to finally have it consistently on grounds. 

Yagut St. is named after a street in Dalat, Vietnam, a coffee-growing city. It's the only shop on our list that doesn't include a component of bubble tea in its name but make no mistake, their bubble tea is worthy of this top spot. They are the lone bubble tea shop in the area to offer oat milk in addition to soy and almond milk, thus making their black sugar milk, a popular new tea-less drink seen all over social media, accessible to vegans (Note: I definitely did not know it was tea-less when I ordered it, making yet another case for clear and descriptive menus). The oat milk perfectly mimicked the flavor and consistency of cow's milk, and the homemade tapioca bubbles were soft and chewy with just the right amount of sweetness from the brown sugar. My only quibble is that there wasn't enough of the drink as half of the small cup was ice. However, this is an easy fix. I also tried and enjoyed my friend's Night Fall, which was a blend of butterfly rose tea and pink-rose poppers. 

Like all the other restaurants on this list, they use loose leaf tea for all their teas. In addition to their homemade boba, they also offer homemade syrup. The only thing that isn't fresh is their fruit flavoring, which as we've seen does not hinder the taste of the drinks. 

The only thing missing from Yagut St. is a running website and a clearer menu. Those should come in the upcoming days as they continue to refine their brand. 

Update: Not all milk teas can be made vegan as the flavorings are pre-mixed, but the ones that can still hit the spot.


This is by no means a complete list-it will constantly change as bubble tea shops continue to open and innovate-nor at 3,000+ words is it a minimalist list, but to those new to bubble tea, I hope it clears any confusion. To those who have been drinking bubble tea all your life, I hope this brings back memories and inspires you to make smarter, more conscious, and yummier food choices. Maybe this guide will serve as a resource to someone considering opening a bubble tea shop one day. Even if none of that happens, at least I finally know what fruit tea is.