The History of Milk Tea

There are three kinds of people in this world: the first is the milk tea connoisseur, who goes above and beyond in trying out flavors and hunting down new shops. The second is the casual consumer, who buys milk tea whenever they’re craving it or just happened to pass by a milk tea shop. The third is the milk tea snob, who probably tried milk tea a few times before but can’t understand why people are so addicted to it.  Whichever category you may belong to, it’s undeniable that milk tea has taken the world by storm. But where exactly did milk tea come from? And when did the trend take off in the Philippines?


Taiwan is credited as the birthplace of milk tea. It’s one of the largest tea markets in the world, but traditional Taiwanese tea houses actually faced a decline, as their products only appealed to the older generation. To combat this, tea houses had to come up with innovative ways to attract younger patrons. The first solution was the “tea art house”, which emerged around the 1970s. Tea art houses made the act of serving tea a performance, giving extra attention to the quality of the tea leaves, cups, serving utensils, and even the temperature of the water. It proved to be a big hit, as customers were willing to pay high prices to drink their tea. 


The second solution took the form of “bubble tea”, also known as pearl milk tea or boba tea. While tea art houses were a big hit in Taiwan, bubble tea garnered a full-fledged cult following worldwide. It was invented around the 1980s, although two tea houses claimed to have been the first to make it. Tu Tsong, owner of the Hanlin Teahouse alleged that he had created the drink by accident as he mixed together tea, milk, and white tapioca balls, which resembled pearls. 


A more popular theory suggests that it was Liu Han-Chieh, owner of the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, who created the drink. According to Liu, he got the idea of creating milk tea when he traveled to Japan and saw that they were serving cold coffee, but his original blend of milk tea didn’t include pearls. It was Liu’s product development manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, who came up with the concoction in 1988, as she brought tapioca pudding to a staff meeting one day and poured it into her milk tea for fun. Everyone in the meeting instantly fell in love with the drink, and the tapioca pudding later became known as “pearls” or “boba.”


The milk tea trend eventually reached the United States in 1990, but it only gained popularity around the 2000s. The Philippines was a little late to the trend despite its proximity to Taiwan, but there were already drinks that resembled milk tea. A notable example is Zagu, which was established in 1999 and was best known for their pearl shakes. Chowking also tried their hand at serving milk tea called Nai Cha, which was a traditional Hong Kong brew made with black tea and condensed milk, but without pearls.


The pioneer of milk tea in the Philippines was Serenitea, which was established by Juliet Herrera-Chen and Peter Chen in 2008. Peter had spent some time in Taiwan, where he had experienced the milk tea buzz and thought that the drink would appeal to Filipinos as well. He turned out to be right.


A year later, different milk tea shops began popping up around university areas, making milk tea a trend among students. However the milk tea “craze” didn’t officially begin until 2010, when the first Happy Lemon was franchised by then UAAP basketball player, Chris Tiu. Happy Lemon’s specialty was the cream cheese milk tea, and it became so popular to the point where people were willing to wait in long lines just to try it. 


The popularity of milk tea reached its peak in 2013, but died down around 2014-2016 after instances of food poisoning and reports of how it increases the chances of diabetes. It was still a popular drink, and there were still milk tea shops around every corner, but people were no longer as excited about it as before. That was until 2017, when Tiger Sugar created the first Brown Sugar Milk tea in Taiwan. The brown sugar syrup, drizzled on the side of the cup, resembled tiger stripes, which eventually became their namesake. The first Tiger Sugar branch opened in the Philippines in 2018 and was met with widespread hype as people were once again willing to line up for hours to try it. Around the same time, people also flocked to Coco Fresh Tea to get a taste of their fruit teas, salty cream toppings, and white pearls. The demand for milk tea has spiked so much, that even places like Starbucks and McDonald’s started to sell milk tea to join the bandwagon.


You would think the milk tea craze would die down again in a pandemic, but it turns out not even the lockdowns can stop the Filipinos’ love for milk tea, as evidenced by how it’s the food delivery riders now who are flocking to milk tea shops to meet the demands of their customers. Then there’s also the Tiger Sugar milk tea ice cream, which became everyone’s favorite quarantine treat. The milk tea craze might have gone through a brief rise and fall, but it has become clear that its popularity would continue in an upward trend. The milk tea industry basically has us wrapped around their finger, but we’re not complaining because it’s truly an addicting drink.

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