Two new cafes in Kent are serving a cold beverage that’s wildly popular in many Asian countries. In today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports the drink is catching on here as a novelty for some, and for others, a refreshing taste of home.
Bubble tea is tea that’s shaken or stirred with milk or fruit juice, with tiny balls of tapioca dropped into it. Mingliang Xie uses green tea for most drinks served at Ming’s Bubble Tea on East Main Street in Kent.
Ming’s birthplace is mainland China. But bubble tea probably originated in Taiwan. It’s believed to have first been brewed at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung, Taiwan.
Both Kent shops opened over the summer
Bubble tea is also brewing these days on North Mantua Street on the other side of Kent.
Jo Li, the owner of Ha!Tea Bubble Tea House, emigrated to the U.S., like Ming, in 2009. Kent’s competing bubble tea parlors both opened about three months ago, and both say business has been good.
Ming offers many varieties, but he says the two basic categories are milk tea and fruit tea.
“The traditional milk tea has the non-dairy creamer, and the actual either black tea or green tea. I tell my customers if they like, if they know they like the creamy and milky taste in the tea, they want to go with the milk tea. We also do fruit tea here. Fruit tea doesn’t have any kind of milk in it. It’s more refreshing, more of an herbal tea taste with fruity flavors.”
Across town at Ha! Tea, barrista Tina opens a stainless steel compartment tray filled with little, chewy tidbits of tapioca that customers can choose to add to their tea. “This is the coconut jelly, and this is grass jelly, and this is like taro pudding, and this is popping pearls.”
With a thick straw, you suck up the pearls, also called boba or chew balls, from the bottom of the plastic cup, and get a burst of flavor.
Kent State professor Mark Whitmore frequents both bubble tea shops, but today we find him at Ming’s.
“This is more convenient to us, but we love the Ha! Tea, too. It’s a really nice family there.”
Professor Whitmore says before Kent’s cafes opened over the summer he’d thought of opening a bubble tea shop himself. That’s how much he likes it.
“Just the novelty of it. Having the little pearls in the drink, and they kind of pop in your mouth with all kinds of flavor, and it’s a lot of fun.”
It’s also a good business for Kent, according to Whitmore, who teaches business at the university. He says with so many Asian students, there’s a customer base to grow on.
"You’ve got about 10 percent of the student population. That’s about 4,200 Chinese students, so that’s a built-in market right there.”
At Ha! Tea with Tina translating, Jo explains why she wanted to open her cafe.
“Because her grandma is from Japan, and she loves tea. And she stayed with her grandma for a long time. So she really wants to continue what her grandma likes. So that’s why she opened this bubble tea house.”
Through her translator, Jo adds another reason. “Because any Asian country like China, Japan, Thailand, different Asian countries, we normally drink tea every day, and we cannot live without tea.”
“What can we get for you guys today?” says the ever-cheerful Ming, greeting a couple of regular customers. Ailen Lin studies fashion design at Kent and Yu-Ting Chang studies architecture.
“I am from Taiwan,” says Chang, “which is the hometown of the bubble tea, and that’s the reason I come here like all the time. They are making like really Taiwanese bubble tea right now.”
Ailen says Ming’s Bubble Tea is their after-school hangout.
“They have all kind of like games. Board games. And sometimes we do homework here.”
When we stop by Ming’s café, a few students are working on laptops as they sip bubble tea. Ming says they’re welcome to linger as long as they like.
“A bubble tea shop in our culture is also a way, you know, a place to hang out with your friends, almost like a Starbucks. You hang out, you study here.”
As he opens a bag of imported green tea, he tells us he gets most of his supplies from Taiwan. Ming is from Shian City in China where he says there were two
bubble tea houses across the street from his high school.
When he arrived in the U.S seven years ago, he was disappointed not to find one.
“Got my green card and joined the Army, became a U.S. citizen, and then I just tried to bring what I had in China before here, because people here in Northeast Ohio never really had authentic bubble tea before.”
From 2010 until opening his shop, Ming studied at the University of Akron and became a combat medic in the Army Reserves.
“When I first started going to school, I wanted to be a nurse. But going for nursing didn’t really work out for me, so I went for business. I’m a people person, you know, I talk to a lot of people, and I enjoy doing that.”
Ming’s former sergeant at the Army hospital unit in Twinsburg, Jonathan Baker, is another regular bubble tea customer.
“I’m still in the reserves, “says Baker. “Ming was in the same Reserve unit as me, and we’re both medics. I hand out his cards all the time.”
Yu-ting Chang is another big supporter. He says he’s had inferior bubble teas at several Chinese restaurants and bakeries in the region, but believes Ming will succeed because his tea is authentic.
“My favorite is passion fruit green tea with bubble,” says Chang, “So it just tastes like my childhood. So that’s why I’m here to get that.”
At Ha! Tea Jane Gradowski of Mantua wasn’t sure what to get.
“I just wanted to see what the bubble tea was all about. With the pearls, do you eat them? Or is it just decoration?”
As she walked out sipping and smiling, she appeared to enjoy finding out what to do with the tapioca pearls, and what the buzz about bubble tea is all about.