How much do you know about milk tea, really?
You’ve probably had it at your local boba spot. A sugary concoction that can, at its worst, serve less as a drink in and of itself and more as a tapioca delivery system.
The thing is though, that kind of milk tea is Taiwanese style. It’s a wildly popular version, but milk tea isn’t originally from Taiwan.
Milk tea is a Hong Kong invention. And now, Hong Kong-style milk tea chain Cuppa Tea – a popular brand with over 800 locations worldwide – is making its US debut in New York’s Flushing, Queens and Baltimore’s College Park.
Hong Kong was a British colony for 99 years, and there are few things that both Chinese and English people take as seriously as tea. When those cultures collided, they inevitably came up with new ways of drinking it.
In Hong Kong, milk tea is serious business. According to Julie Li, master franchisor for Cuppa Tea’s first US locations: “In order to drink authentic Hong Kong-style milk tea, you have to go through a certain boiling process, and the pull tea process and the brewing process. That’s why it takes a really long time. That’s why we sell out. Because we have to have at least 30 minutes to prepare one pot. Usually in one pot we can prepare six or seven milk tea drinks. But a lot of people want it cold. If you want it cold, we need time to cool it down. And to cool it down without ice takes longer.”
I interviewed Li at Cuppa Tea’s Flushing, Queens location, and she said that because their brewing process is so involved, it severely limits what they can supply to customers. Their tea shop has only been open a few months, but they have lines out the door and sell out of tea every day. She had to set aside a bottle for me to make sure I could try it.
Li told me that they initially tried to keep up with demand, but eventually had to set a cap on how much any one customer could order to keep the shop from selling out “in an hour.” Because they do everything from scratch, and are situated in a heavily Chinese neighborhood, people are clamoring for their tea.
Lines out the door are a great problem to have, but for Li, they are still a problem: “We do love good business, but it’s actually put us into a bind.”
The ongoing strains of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that, “It’s so hard to order from certain suppliers.. and the pricing can be crazy. I remember when we just started the pricing for one container [of tea] was around $3,000. Right now they’re reaching $30,000.” Li has had to limit her food menu as a result of supply chain issues, has had a difficult time ordering everything from syrup to cups, and is currently only serving a few of snacks that would usually accompany Cuppa Tea’s drink offerings.
Opening in the midst of COVID was an additional obstacle, since workers are fleeing the hospitality industry in droves. Early on, Li, the store manager, and her husband spent up to 14 hours a day at Cuppa Tea to compensate for the lack of skilled employees who could keep up with the demand.
But despite this, they have never let quality slip. I visited Cuppa Tea with a friend who has family in Hong Kong, and both of us were impressed with the milk tea, which he said was better than much of what he’s tried there. We were also particular fans of the curried fish balls, which are hard to find in the US.
To keep up with demand as much as possible, Li has worked closely with other bubble tea businesses, particularly at their College Park location near the University of Maryland: “We try to support each other as much as we can, see whose shipments get in first, and maybe can help each other… Whatever raw material you need, let’s say the syrup or the tapioca, anything we need to make from scratch.”
That cooperative spirit and a cold bottle of strong tea is all you can ask for sometimes.
Cuppa Tea Flushing is located at 37-12 Prince st, Flushing, NY 11354, inside the Tangram building.