Vancouver has its fair share of beverage options—signature cocktails, craft beers, artisan coffees, and cold-pressed juices, just to name a few. One specific drink category that may have been overlooked in the past (or overshadowed by other libations) is now becoming one of the most popular thirst quenchers around town: bubble tea.
If you’re wondering what bubble tea is, it’s a drink that contains a tea base mixed with milk or fruit, and the stars of the show are chewy tapioca balls: a black-coloured, starch-based dessert also known as “pearls” or “boba”. The Taiwanese drink is said to have been developed on the Asian island nation in the 1980s, garnering more attention in Southeast Asia before its rise to popularity around the globe.
The bubble-tea market in Vancouver appears to have increased during the past two decades, coinciding with the growth of the city’s Asian communities. In our quest for the new drink, we were once limited to hole-in-the-wall spots and food-court vendors that offered smaller menus, but those days are long gone.
The Taiwanese bubble-tea chain giants began entering Vancouver’s market a few years ago, most notably Chatime, known for its roasted milk tea with pearls, signature fruit teas, and seasonal drinks. After Chatime broke the ice for overseas bubble-tea franchises in the city, others followed suit: Coco Fresh Tea and Juice, Sharetea, Gong Cha, Happy Lemon, ComeBuy, and, most recently, Yifang Fruit Tea.
Yifang Fruit Tea is a Taiwanese bubble-tea chain that opened its first Vancouver location (2–1725 Robson Street) last November. It prides itself on using topnotch ingredients and, unlike other shops, offers a limited menu to focus on perfecting its signature drinks.
“All of our ingredients are imported from Taiwan, and all the juice that we use, like passion fruit and pineapple and cane juice, are all fresh and cold-pressed,” Joanne Huang, general manager of Yifang Fruit Tea Vancouver, told the Straight by phone. “It’s all natural ingredients. We don’t use any artificial flavours, and we don’t use any powders.”
One of its most popular menu picks is the black-sugar soft-pearl-ball latte—a blend of either milk or black-tea latte with black-sugar tapioca balls. It is only sold at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. daily, due to the prepping and quality assurance required. “We can only cook a certain amount per batch each time. That’s why a lot of people line up for this,” Huang explained. “Since we need to serve it within a certain time period, we don’t make a lot, so it’s sold out all the time.”
She also stated that Yifang’s local franchisee (who also owns Dinesty Dumpling House) has plans to open up more locations around Metro Vancouver in the near future, including in Richmond and Burnaby.
But before the arrival of the Taiwanese bubble-tea giants and their expansion locally, there were the mom-and-pop shops—located inside local Asian plazas and on neighbourhood corners—that satisfied Vancouver’s bubble-tea lovers.
David Wu is the 28-year-old owner of Mr. Mustache Bubble Tea (8079 Granville Street and 6125 Sussex Avenue, Burnaby), which has attracted many devoted fans, even against stiff competition. His career in the finance industry proved to be too stressful, so he decided in 2016 to change his lifestyle by opening an establishment that served his favourite beverage.
Mr. Mustache’s signature drink is its macchiato: brewed tea with a milky layer of cream floating on top. Customers are encouraged to sip from the lid instead of using a straw, because then they can fully taste flavourful tea enhanced by the slightly salty cream. “You’ll get the white mustache if you drink it without the lid,” Wu told the Straight in a phone interview. “That’s the reason why we are called Mr. Mustache.”
It offers a range of milk teas, slush series (our favourite is the mango ice cream with pearls), sparkling teas, and more. “We try to update the menu once in a while. We get feedback from our customers, so we adjust to what they like and what they don’t like,” Wu added. “That’s the good part about small businesses: we are more flexible and we don’t have big corporations that control us.”
When asked if he felt pressured by the arrival of Taiwanese bubble-tea chains, Wu acknowledged that he was a little apprehensive at first. “When they started entering the market, I was a little concerned,” he said. “But our business was still doing very well, so I don’t think we are actually affected by them. I think people actually have a taste for local products, and we have more character.”
Mr. Mustache is not the only local bubble-tea shop keeping afloat in the face of outside competition. Well-loved spots such as the Milk & Sugar Café (3365 Kingsway) and Dragon Ball Tea House (1007 West King Edward Avenue) are still very busy.
“Vancouver is an international city, and there’s a lot of market for international companies and drinks,” Wu stated. “Everybody has different tastes and it’s very personal, and when there’s more variety in the city, it will diversify the bubble-tea options. I think it’s good for the city.”