Over the years, the city of Manchester has become a melting pot for cultures and sub-cultures. From the alternative stylings of Afflecks and the Northern Quarter to the traditions of Chinatown and the legacy of Little Italy, this Northern Powerhouse is rich with history. Recently, a particularly delicious new trend has added itself to the mix.
If you’ve been into the city centre lately, you’ve likely seen youths and students walking around with brightly-coloured, bubble-filled drinks. You may even have spotted them in aesthetically pleasing posts on Instagram. This is the latest craze in beverage-based enjoyment that’s quickly making a name for itself in the North and throughout the UK: bubble tea.
‘Bubble Tea’ (or boba tea) is a Taiwanese drink that’s been around since the 1980s. As the name suggests, it consists of flavoured milk tea and small, chewy tapioca pearls or bubbles (think of them as the top of a crème brûlée condensed into a ball). Though that’s the more traditional presentation, of late it has developed more of a colourful iced tea look, replacing the tapioca with juice bubbles or chunks of jelly. Needless to say, it’s a unique addition to the British palate both in terms of look and taste.
As unusual as it sounds (and unappealing to some), bubble tea has seen a swift rise in popularity over the past decade. At the time of writing, there are 10 shops and cafés dedicated to bubble tea in Manchester, with another poised to open in Arndale Market. Stores such as Bubbleology and Tealive serve more modern variations of the drink, while chains like Gong Cha keep bubble tea at its roots with more authentic flavours and toppings. Whichever kind you prefer, somewhere in the city has it.
But how did it get here? Much of the thanks can be attributed to Jacqui Wan, founder of Manchester’s first bubble tea store, BoBo Tea MCR, located on the first floor of the Arndale shopping centre. Wan came to the city while studying law at university, but was disappointed to find little to no boba offerings.
“At the time, the only bubble tea offering was in a small bakery,” she says. “It was a beverage I was brought up drinking and [when I was in England] I’d really miss our drinks from back home in Asia. It was something I really wanted here.”
In the end, Wan missed bubble tea so much that she quit her banking job of two years to start up her own business alongside her husband. “I hated [my job]. I would be constantly daydreaming about what I could do instead, so one day I decided to take a leap.” And leap she did. In 2011, her days of office-based boba daydreaming were over and BoBo Tea MCR was born.
Within the first five years, Wan watched as her store’s popularity grew and now, nearly 10 years later, it’s busier than ever. Whether it’s down to location or the surge of appreciation for Asian culture via social media, it seems that more and more people are curious about bubble tea and raring to give it a try. In hindsight, her success is a little more surprising.
“At the time of opening, we weren’t that worried,” she said in reflection. “I loved [bubble tea], so I thought everyone else would love it. But now thinking back, it is pretty scary. The British public are used to taking their tea with milk and sugar and we’re trying to get them to drink it cold through a straw.”
Consequently, Wan and her husband had to find new ways to adapt this niche bit of culture to a wider audience.
“The other offerings in Manchester are geared towards more local Chinese and [their menus] are more traditional,” she explains. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but we try and appeal to what we think would be the more mainstream palate since it’s all relatively new to the UK. The UK has always been a bit behind with these things.”
Even during a pandemic, popularity didn’t plummet. Throughout the initial COVID-19 lockdown, Wan and her team created bubble tea kits for people to make their favourite beverages from home, from basic fruit teas to the more elaborate brown sugar milk teas. Within a matter of weeks, they were already “swamped” with orders from regulars, newcomers and even some from across the pond. It’s safe to say that people were missing their bubble tea fix.
As it approaches its 10-year anniversary, BoBo Tea has firmly secured its place in the city, even winning the Manchester Arndale Retail Award for ‘Store We Can’t Live Without’ two years in a row. All Wan ever wanted was to bring something she loved to her new doorstep and have the joy of introducing it to those who had never seen it before. Those initial goals have grown and grown to more than she could ever have imagined.
“I wouldn’t trade it back,” she says. “It hasn’t been without its challenges, but now that we’ve set everything up, we’re very appreciative of all our customers. Bubble tea is here to stay. It’s become just like a milkshake or smoothie. It’s part of culture.”
With new bubble tea shops popping up in Manchester seemingly every year, it’s certainly got itself a steadfast audience. We’re a nation of tea-lovers, after all. So what’s wrong with having it cold with jelly?
Images courtesy of Bobo Tea Mcr.