Fun at Home: New Year's Boba Tea Bar

By: Annabella Lau

December 28, 2020

Category: Recreation

This New Year’s, treat your family, roommates or quarantine buddies to a new special drink: boba tea! Creating your own at-home boba tea bar is a delicious and safe way to celebrate and ring in 2021.

If you aren’t already familiar, boba tea, also known as bubble tea, refers to a tea drink with toppings like tapioca pearls, jellies, puddings and more. Traditionally, “boba” refers to chewy tapioca pearls that are eaten along with the drink using a wide, special straw.

two mason jars filled with creamy boba tea
Boba tea often consists of tea, milk, ice and chewy tapioca pearls, served with a wide straw. Photo by Annabella Lau.

This drink originated in Taiwan and rose to popularity in the United States during the ‘90s. Bubble tea is consumed in countries all around the world. In Minnesota, boba tea shops are particularly popular around college campuses or bustling metropolitans.

Boba tea can be made with any type of tea and can be hot or iced. From the teas to the toppings, one of the wonderful characteristics of this fun drink is the variety of options to choose from. If tapioca pearls aren’t really your thing, you’re in luck! Toppings can vary vastly, from the simple tapioca pearls to several flavors of jellies or even something called “popping” boba. 

Below you’ll find a guide to make your own bubble tea bar at home. See the best toppings for beginners, a recipe for brown sugar simple syrup and directions on how to cook your own tapioca pearls. I’ve also included tips for how to brew a great cup of milk tea!

Boba Toppings for Beginners

tri color jellies and mango pearls in mason jars
Serve toppings in jars or cups for your own boba tea bar. Photo by Annabella Lau.

In my boba bar, I like to include passion fruit popping boba, tri-color jellies, aloe vera jelly and traditional black tapioca pearls. Feel free to incorporate as many or as few toppings as you want in your tea bar!

Feeling a little lost? Here’s a quick guide to toppings:

Tapioca Pearls

Black tapioca pearls are the most traditional topping in boba tea. They are known for their chewiness and subtle sweetness, which is why it is important to soak the pearls in simple syrup, sugar water or honey to enhance the flavor. Though they may taste gummy, their texture is actually due to cassava root (not gelatin) and therefore, they are vegan and kosher-friendly!

Jellies

Jellies are a topping that have hit the mainstream coffee shops (looking at you Caribou!) These toppings have a very distinct texture of a soft jelly encased in a slightly tougher outside. They are typically made from coconut but can come in several flavors and colors, like coffee, traditional coconut, rainbow and tri-color.

Popping Boba

Popping boba has risen to popularity even outside of tea shops, and is a common topping in smoothies and frozen yogurt. These pearls can be described as a very thin, chewy case made of seaweed extract — don’t worry, it’s virtually tasteless! — filled with flavored fruit juice, most popularly mango, lychee, passion fruit and my personal favorite: strawberry. 

When you bite into this delicious topping, the pearl “pops” to unveil a delicious fruit juice. This topping may be appealing to children and picky eaters if fruit juice is more palatable in your family. 

Popping boba would be quite difficult (if not impossible) to make at home because it requires a specific “spherification” process to encase the juice and produce the unique “popping” quality. I would recommend you purchase this at your local Asian grocery store or online. 

It is also important to note this topping can only be enjoyed in cold tea because it will dissolve in heat.

Pudding

A popular topping in milk teas is a thick, custard-like pudding that you can consume through a straw.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera can be soaked in sugar water, then put into tea! This is a popular addition to fruit-based teas and refreshers. Feel free to soak fresh aloe yourself or buy a can of this topping pre-soaked.

Where to Buy Boba Tea Toppings

Your local Asian supermarket may have tons of different toppings that you can try on your own and include in your boba bar. Otherwise, these toppings may be available at Walmart, Target or Cub in certain locations. They are also available for purchase online. 

Note: Remember normal straws will not be suitable for toppings so make sure to pick up wide boba straws, invest in reusable ones or use a spoon!

canned aloe vera and jellies
Jellies, popping boba, pre-soaked aloe vera and more can be purchased from your local Asian grocery store or online. Photo by Annabella Lau.

Cooking Tapioca Pearls

Due to the size of my pots, I make the following recipe in two separate batches. Feel free to combine the two together (just make sure to use more water) or omit the second batch entirely. The recipe as written makes about 2 to 3 drinks' worth of pearls, but add as much or as little as you like. It may be a good idea to make a smaller batch if you plan on combining toppings.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups water (filtered is best)
  • 1/2 cup quick-cooking dried brown tapioca pearls
  • 1 cup cold or ice water
  • Simple syrup or honey to taste

Directions:

  1. Boil 4 cups of water in medium to large pot. 
  2. Once water is boiling, add tapioca pearls to the pot.
  3. When the pearls float to the top, cover your pot. This will only take a few minutes so watch carefully.
  4. Leave your pearls cooking, covered, until they are your desired texture. *I leave mine in for about 4-5 minutes, until they are soft and chewy throughout. Keep in mind pearls may be slightly less soft when sitting in a cold drink.
  5. While the tapioca is cooking, prepare the cup of cold ice water in a larger glass container and leave enough room (¾ cup) for the boba.
  6. Once you have cooked pearls to desired texture, remove the pot from heat. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pearls from the pot, then transfer to the ice water.
  7.  Strain the water out of the cup. Add simple syrup, honey or plain sugar water to strained boba to give pearls best flavor.
three images in a row: boiling black tapioca pearls in a steel pot; straining pearls with a slotted spoon; cooling pearls in a cup of ice
The basics of cooking tapioca pearls: boil, strain and ice. Photos by Annabella Lau.

Tips for making good boba:

  • Good quality water will produce the best quality boba. Use filtered water if you have access to it; otherwise tap water works just fine.
  • Do not add the uncooked pearls until your pot has reached a rolling boil. This promotes even cooking at a consistent temperature.
  • Leave your pearls in simple syrup or honey after cooking/storage for best flavor.

How to Make Brown Sugar Simple Syrup

Brown sugar simple syrup is a popular addition to bubble tea because it adds a more complex flavor than regular white sugar syrup. Syrup is often added to drinks individually so the sweetness can be personalized for each tea.

Here's how to make it:

Makes enough syrup for about 4-6 drinks, depending on preferred sweetness

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)

Directions:

  1. Add water and brown sugar to the pot over medium-low heat.
  2. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved.
  3. Remove the pot from the burner and let cool before using or storing.

How to Make Milk Tea

As the name suggests, milk tea in its most basic form is just milk and tea. Big surprise, right? Popular milk teas typically include some blend of black or green tea, but oolong, white or herbal blends are not at all uncommon.

It is super easy to adjust the amount of tea you want to brew based off of the number of servings you want to make. With cream, sweetener and sometimes ice, I would recommend making about 1 cup of tea per drink.

Ingredients:

  • 6 to 8 servings tea of choice (tea bags, loose leaf, etc.)*
  • 5 cups of water
  • Half-and-half or non-dairy substitute
  • Brown sugar simple syrup
  • Any other toppings you would like!

*One serving is equivalent to one tea bag or roughly 1 teaspoon loose leaf tea. Add more or less to control how strong the brew is.

Directions:

  1. Heat water to designated temperature for type of tea (see chart below).
  2. Add loose leaf tea or tea bags for appropriate amount of time.
  3. Serve hot tea from the kettle with half and half or non-dairy substitute. Add brown sugar simple syrup to taste.**
  4. Spoon desired toppings into drink and serve! Do not put popping boba in hot drinks — the thin capsule will dissolve in the heat.

**Omit half-and-half and/or sweetener if desired.

FOR COLD DRINKS:

Add half-and-half and brown sugar simple syrup into a cocktail shaker with 1 cup of fresh brewed tea and 1 cup ice; shake. The ice shaker will cool down the tea faster, mix the contents and create the famous “bubbles” in bubble tea! Pour entire contents into glass.

Tips on brewing the best cup of milk tea:

  • More tea, not more time. If you want to preserve the tea flavor (after adding milk and sweetener), you will need a stronger blend of tea. I recommend brewing more loose leaves or additional tea bag(s) instead of brewing your tea for longer. Over-steeping can lead to a bitter tasting and unpleasant brew. I like to brew with 1-1/2 to 2 times the normal amount of tea for a strong cup.
  • Temperature check. For the best cup of tea, brew your blend at the correct temperature. It is best to follow the instructions on your tea, but here is simple overview of what temperature and how long you should steep your tea:

chart of temperatures and time to steep tea

There is your basic introduction to bubble tea! Remember, this drink can be made either hot or cold, with or without cream or syrup, with any type of tea and any combination of toppings.

The possibilities truly are endless. Please have a safe, responsible and fun New Year! Good luck and happy sipping!

About the Author

annabella lau sitting at an overlook of fall forests

Annabella Lau has worked as a barista at Silverwood Park in Three Rivers Park District for over two years. When she is not in café, she may be renting out watercrafts, hosting a concert or getting her hands dirty in the garden beds at Silverwood. She takes pride in the district’s zero-waste policy and helps create delicious and environmentally-savvy drinks. In her free time she enjoys arts like painting, photography, sewing and other crafts, doing yoga, hanging out with her dogs, and studying life sciences at the University of Minnesota. You may also find her expressing her love for the environment while hiking, camping, or kayaking through the country.

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