1st USA company to offer bubble tea products online since 2001

Pearl tea turns out to be a gem of an idea

By Betty Shimabukuro

Bubble tea sits high on the list of who-woulda-thought products -- as in, who woulda thought people would enjoy sucking little gelatinous balls out of sweet, creamy fruit drinks?

But they do, and the popularity of bubble tea is undeniable. The growing number of shops dedicated to the drink prove the point.

Now a year-old Honolulu company called Bubble Tea Supply is making it possible to serve up the drink at home, with a kit that includes dried tapioca pearls (the bubbles), powdered flavorings and the extra-wide straws needed to suck up the pearls.

The kits will debut as one of the many innovations at the Food and New Products Show that opens tomorrow.

Bubble tea -- it also goes by the names boba, pearl tea, milk tea and zhen zhu nai cha -- originated in Taiwan, but has grown trendy across Asia and in several U.S. cities. Internet Web sites are dedicated to the shared obsession of bubble fans (one of them states that the nickname of boba is Taiwanese slang for boobs, and when you think about the texture of the pearls ... well, let's not go there).

Evan Leong, owner with wife Kari of Bubble Tea Supply, discovered the drink while living and working in California, sometimes drinking two or three a day. "At $3 a crack it got more expensive than eating meals," Leong says.

But attempts to make their own proved difficult, he says. "Everyone was so secretive about it."

So the couple researched the market and found a manufacturer in Taiwan to make the tapioca and flavorings for them. They moved back home to Hawaii to open their business.

Leong says they were the first to venture onto the Internet with a Web site, www.bubbleteasupply.com, that offered products and recipes.

The site receives 10,000 hits a month, he says, and receives orders from across the mainland. The company sells tapioca pearls and flavorings in bulk, largely to tea shops, but also to true enthusiasts.

Bubble tea party kits, for example, include 2 pounds of pearls, assorted flavorings, teas and straws for $35 to $56.40. Just the pearls start at $6.95 for 2.2 pounds, enough for 20 to 30 drinks, depending on how pearly you like them.

With the new kits, Bubble Tea Supply goes retail, and Leong says they should be showing up in stores soon. They'll sell for about $6, with enough in each kit to make six drinks. At this week's fair they'll sell at a discount for $5.

The kits make bubble drinking more convenient, but they aren't an instant fix. The pearls arrive as hard little black balls. To make them chewy, you boil them in water for 25 minutes, then let them steep for another 25 minutes. Rinse, drain and sweeten, then add to your drink of choice.

Tea shops typically serve the pearls with creamy tea-based drinks flavored with fruit -- honeydew and strawberry being popular. They're also served with creamy iced coffees.

Bubble Tea Supply's Web site offers some basic recipes for drinks using the company's pearls. But experimentation is encouraged. Instead of powdered creamer, for example, try milk, condensed milk or cream; if it's too much trouble to make sugar syrup, try a scoop of regular sugar instead; or blend in ice to make a smoothie

The fun of it all is in the bubbles.

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