Milk tea is not a new drink, and it is even “out of date” to some extent.
The trend is so strong that even Starbucks has had to relaunch the “TEAVANA series” in the Asia-Pacific region-unlike TEAVANA elsewhere, the TEAVANA in the Asia-Pacific region is a series of iced tea made of fresh fruit.
On Twitter, “live” has become one of Japan’s most popular hashtag, meaning “drinking Boba milk tea.” Some Japanese merchants have even added Boba(boiled Tapioca starch ball) to pizza, ramen, dumplings, and sushi to create a variety of dishes that taste like pearl milk tea.
To some extent, the new milk tea is no longer milk tea, some of which do not even have milk.
What on earth makes milk tea — a classic junk food — popular again in Asia?
Milk tea comes from the British colonies
Milk tea has many different forms and different origins. But overall, most of the traditional milk tea originated from the variation of British afternoon tea in Asia.
In the 19th century, Britain colonized India, Myanmar, Malay Peninsula, Hong Kong and other places, and these areas happened to be the birthplace of traditional milk tea.
In general, the story of traditional milk tea is this: the British brought the habit of mixing milk and tea to colonies and surrounding areas, and local residents added other things according to their preferences.
In Hong Kong and Macau, cotton gauze is used to filter impurities in milk tea, which is called stockings because it looks like stockings.
On the Malay Peninsula, the mixture is poured back and forth repeatedly between two vessels from a height, giving it a thick frothy top. This process cools the tea to optimal drinking temperatures, thoroughly mixes the tea with the condensed milk, and improves its flavor. They call it “Teh tarik”.
In India, more spices have been added to milk tea to make it Masala chai.
In Taiwan, China, in the 1980s, it became popular to add small balls made of cassava powder to milk tea, which is the most famous pearl milk tea.
In general, you can call any drink mixed with milk and tea milk tea. But in most of the current context, it has been away from British milk tea for a long time.
It is worth mentioning that in mainland China, the first people to drink milk tea (butter tea) are Tibetans and Mongolians, this kind of milk tea is made of butter and tea. The drink dates back to the Tang Dynasty, and it is rumored that it was Princess Wencheng who brought tea into Tibet that contributed to the emergence of the drink. But this kind of milk tea has little to do with modern milk tea, its taste is salty.
Represented by Taiwan’s Boba milk tea and Hong Kong-style milk tea, milk tea became popular in Asia as early as the 1990s. Milk tea is more popular with young people than coffee, because it is generally sweet, and no one hates sweetness. Coffee is called “adult taste” in Asia. If not for caffeine or to show a mature personality, young people would prefer milk tea to coffee in leisure.
At that time, the industrialization level of the milk tea industry had reached its peak, and food manufacturers made instant milk tea similar to instant coffee. Because the production technology of traditional milk tea is simple, the traditional milk tea made on the spot is often not different from instant milk tea, and the foam of traditional milk tea gradually burst at the beginning of 21 century.
But in the second decade of the 21 century, the emergence of new milk tea led to the resurgence of milk tea and began to create a popular storm in Asia.
The rise of New Milk Tea
Although milk tea has a long history in Asia, the popularity of this round of milk tea is related to a new company in mainland China, whose name is “喜茶” (Xi cha, HEYTEA), which was founded in Jiangmen City, Guangdong Province in 2012.
Since HEYTEA does not use milk tea powder to make milk tea, this may result in a cup of HEYTEA milk tea being made for more than 10 minutes. Further, this has led to long lines in front of HEYTEA stores.
In 2017, HEYTEA entered China’s first-tier cities of Shanghai and Beijing for the first time, causing a stir among consumers. At one point, the HEYTEA retail store in Sanlitun, Beijing, had to wait in line for two hours to buy a cup of HEYTEA milk tea. A cup of HEYTEA milk tea costs between $2.91 and $5.82, but people are willing to pay $14.55 to hire scalpers to buy HEYTEA milk tea for themselves in order to shorten the queue.
HEYTEA’s original success was called “芝芝芒芒” (zhī zhī máng máng, Mago Cheezo), a milk tea made of cheese, mango, and green tea. Nie Yunchen, CEO of HEYTEA, said in an interview that they initially analyzed food-related data on Weibo, China’s Twitter, and found that cheese and mango content were always highly forwarded, so they developed the Mago Cheezo.
HEYTEA, “Nixue Tea”, “Lele Cha” and other new milk tea brands are basically related to fruit, and the fruits they use are fresh fruit rather than fruit seasoning. In summer, ice drinks made of fresh fruit have a cleaner taste, which is quite different from traditional milk tea.
After the success of HEYTEA, there has been a lot of analysis of HEYTEA strategies, but the most mentioned point is that HEYTEA provides a social bargaining chip rather than just a cup of milk tea.
Unlike traditional milk tea brands, HEYTEA changes its menu every season. And many milk teas are related to Chinese cultural symbols.
In the autumn of 2019, for example, HEYTEA launched the Ovaltine Series. Ovaltine is a famous instant drink from Switzerland, but for the Chinese in the 1980s, Ovaltine was one of the rare imported food in their childhood and represented the memories of that era.
HEYTEA customizes a separate communication strategy for every milk tea, using a different style to arouse the cultural awareness behind each taste. Young Chinese talk to each other about the taste of HEYTEA’s new products and their corresponding cultural content, which has contributed significantly to HEYTEA sales.
But also because of this cultural strategy, HEYTEA’s pace of opening stores overseas is not fast enough. As of January 2020, HEYTEA had entered the Singapore market only.
THE ALLEY’s brand marketing highlights luxury and mystery, rather than being associated with a particular regional cultural symbol. Qiu Maoting, the main founder of THE ALLEY, did not have a background in the catering industry but was a designer. So THE ALLEY’s milk tea always has an outstanding visual effect.
THE ALLEY’s most famous drink, Aurora Series, has the same color and texture as the real AURORA, which makes it attractive to young people in any country.
By 2020, THE ALLEY has opened more than 200 stores around the world, of which about 123 are in mainland China.
Troubles of New Milk Tea: CopyCat, caffeine and Obesity
Before we talk about “milk tea is junk food”, we need to discuss another issue: although no milk tea is good for human health, if you drink fake milk tea, it may be even worse for your health.
The Copycat problem has been bothering the new milk tea from the beginning. The original name of HEYTEA is actually not HEYTEA, but “RoyalTea.” In 2015, with the development of HEYTEA, its founders found that the RoyalTea trademark had been registered by many of its competitors and had to be renamed HEYTEA.
THE ALLEY faces the same problem., THE ALLEY opened its first store in mainland China in April 2018, but in the following year, there was a close approach 3000 CopyCat spot. They use exactly the same design and store style as the authentic THE ALLEY to sell seemingly the same milk tea. Only through the official website of THE ALLEY, can we distinguish the authenticity of these stores.
In addition to directly using other people’s trademarks to open stores, there is often vicious competition between new milk tea brands-because in fact, the combination that can make up a wonderful taste is not unlimited. In November 2018, Naixue Tea accused HEYTEA of plagiarizing several of its products.
Since the main selling point of the new milk tea is social symbols, some consumers actually do not care that they buy fake milk tea, which brings a lot of trouble to legitimate operators. On the other hand, milk tea sold by Copycat Milk Tea Shop also has food safety and taste problems, which may damage the brand of legitimate operators.
Milk tea has also been considered a very unhealthy food, although most of the new milk tea is made up of fresh ingredients.
A monitoring by, SICQ (Shenzhen Institute Of Consumption Quality) in October 2019 showed that milk tea on the market generally contains large amounts of caffeine. One of the brands, “Mizhilian”, sells “classic Hong Kong-style milk tea” with caffeine concentrations of about 522mg/L. A cup of “classic Hong Kong milk tea” contains about the same amount of caffeine as seven cans of standard Red Bull.
In milk tea, there are also a lot of sugar and fat, which is even the main reason why consumers are “addicted” to milk tea. People are greedy for the dopamine storm caused by the ingestion of sugar and fat, and the delicate appearance of milk tea makes people ignore that it is an energy bomb.
Another SICQ monitoring showed that 9 of the 10 milk teas monitored contained more than 30g of sugar, and one of the “HEYTEA” milk teas contained 46g of sugar. Such a cup of milk tea alone has a sugar content that exceeds the daily sugar intake recommended by the World Health Organization.
Only a few brands, such as “HEYTEA”, offer the option of “low-calorie sweetener”, but low-calorie sweetener does not apply to any situation.
On the HEYTEA menu, consumers will notice that some of these milk teas are not allowed to choose low-calorie sweeteners, while others show that using low-calorie sweeteners can lead to bad taste.
HEYTEA’s low-calorie sweetener is actually stevia, a natural sweetener that cannot be absorbed by humans, but it tastes “stiff” compared to sucrose. Especially if stevia is mixed with sucrose and fructose-for example, in fruit tea.
But even the choice of “low-calorie sweetener” does not mean that milk tea becomes healthy because milk tea also contains a lot of fat.
According to a test report of 40 kinds of milk tea released by Fuzhou Consumer Association in November 2019, the fat content of 40 milk tea was between 3.77 g and 40.63 g, with an average fat content of 19.57 g.
High calorie is the original criticism that milk tea has been unable to get rid of since ancient times. The new milk tea uses on-site production and fresh raw materials to give consumers a “healthier” feeling, but in fact that is false. Excessive amounts of sugar, fat and caffeine themselves can cause damage to the body, whether they come from food additives or natural ingredients.
So in the end, only butter tea is really “healthy” milk tea, because only consumers at high altitude need so much energy and caffeine.