Bubble tea, in case you were unaware, has a cult following. Followers loyal to their retail brand will break down the sensory characteristics of their favourite bubble tea, and compare it with the counterpart from a competitor brand.
We're sure many fans have a lot to say about which retail brand does the best tapioca pearl, or which does the perfectly balanced milk tea, but we won't be going into that here.
Instead, we're looking at the best supermarket bubble teas to make or have at home, based on taste, nutrition and ease of preparation. We tested 21 milk and fruit-based bubble teas, with the taste-testing component carried out by the trusted public and CHOICE staff.
Chatime Brown Sugar Milk Tea
CHOICE score: 92%
Price per serve: $2.50
Taste test notes: "Brown sugar with a mild tea taste"; "Proper pearls (chewy)"; "Right amount of sweetness – the most similar to a store-bought bubble tea of the ones I tasted".
Chatime Passionfruit Iced Tea
CHOICE score: 88%
Price per serve: $2.50
Taste test notes: "Perfectly sweet, not too passion-fruity"; "[the pearls are] light, cool and slimy".
Avalanche Mango Bubble Tea
CHOICE score: 77%
Price per serve: $1.60
Taste test notes: "Not too sweet"; "[the pearls are] chewy, gooey".
What makes a good bubble tea?
The lower scoring bubble teas had a few things in common, according to the taste testers: they were either too sweet, had little flavour, or the taste resembled milk powder or had an artificial flavour to it. These low scorers were also reported to be more fiddly to make, which had an impact on their ease of use score.
Products that scored higher, such as the Chatime Brown Sugar Milk Tea, were reported to have the right amount of sweetness and were easier to prepare with just a microwave and kettle.
Bubble tea, boba, or pearl tea can be traced back to the early 1980s in Taiwan, but it didn't take off in the Western world until the 2000s.
Its 'bubbles' or 'pearls' are 1cm diameter balls made from a starchy component like tapioca or algae gum. The various bubbles or pearls used in bubble tea are referred to as 'toppings', and include black pearls (the standard black tapioca ball), balls filled with syrups, and other creative concoctions in a range of shapes, sizes and flavours.
These toppings are added to various teas, coffee, slushies and milk flavours and are enjoyed hot or cold, drunk through a wide straw.
Save money making it yourself
It's much cheaper to make bubble tea at home than it is to buy it from a bubble tea retailer. The average price per serve of the supermarket bubble teas we tested was $2.30, compared to about $7 from a bubble tea store like Chatime. Over time, making it yourself could mean big savings, particularly if you're a regular buyer.
Some kits are easier to make than others
Let's face it: if you're going to make bubble tea at home it needs to be simple to put together, otherwise it's easy to justify spending the extra dollars at Gong Cha.
BBT Club and Boba Luxe products had multiple components and steps, which included draining of the tea and cooking the pearls on the stove. While this can be very exciting to some people, others may find it fiddly and time consuming.
Our testers found the Avalanche brand bubble teas easier to make. The pearls were able to be microwaved in the pouch for 20 seconds (warning: they were very hot to handle), which after that only required the addition of water to the mix. The fruit Chatime bubble teas already had the popping pearls prepared, so were generally easy to make as well.
Shoppers at Top Ryde eagerly awaiting their bubble tea samples.
Bubble teas contain numerous types of sugars to make them sweet, including sucrose, fructose and glucose. Remember, sugar by any other name is still sugar, and sugar-sweetened beverages are linked to obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The average sugar content of the bubble teas we tested was about 6.3g per 100g. By way of comparison, a Coca-Cola Classic drink contains 10.6g of sugar per 100g. The creamers used in most of the milky bubble teas are a mixture of non-dairy fats and yes, more sugar – in the form of glucose.
The lowest Health Star Rating (HSR) of the products we tested was 0.5, and the highest was 2. HSRs for this category simply come down to energy and sugar content.
Low in sugar, but low in taste
The two bubble teas that claimed to contain 50% less sugar were Naked Life's Betta Boba Brown Sugar Bubble Tea and Betta Boba Milk Bubble Tea. They each contained 1.6g of sugar per 100g – significantly lower than the test average of 6.3g of sugar per 100g.
Much of the sweetness of these drinks comes from sweeteners like erythritol and stevia. It's a shame these lower sugar varieties scored so low on taste, with taste test scores of 12% and 6%, respectively. For comparison, the two best tasting samples earned taste test scores of 96% (Chatime Brown Sugar Milk Tea) and 90% (Chatime Passionfruit Iced Tea).
We asked shoppers at Top Ryde Shopping Centre to taste a selection of 21 bubble teas, and then vote for their favourite. We had about 15 public taste testers test each sample.
The CHOICE score is based on the public taste test results (80%), nutrition score (Health Star Rating, 10%), and ease of preparation score (10%).
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.