Born in Taiwan in the 1980s, boba tea has experienced a surge in popularity. The "bubbles" are known as "boba" – chewy little tapioca balls about a centimeter in diameter. Boba tea is essentially a fusion of a tea drink popular in 1980s Taiwan in which green or black tea was shaken with ice and syrup in a shaker until it developed a foamy, "bubbly" head, and Taiwanese dessert called fen yuan in which sweetened shaved ice is topped with chewy sweet tapioca balls. The exact origins of boba tea as we've come to know it are widely disputed. Two rival Taiwanese tea houses tried to settle the matter in court, but neither were able to successfully patent or trademark the product. Consequently the variations of the drink quickly spread throughout Taiwan before popping up in neighboring Asian countries and eventually around the globe.
These days the variety of boba drinks goes far beyond tea. Boba can be found in coffee, fruit smoothies, Italian sodas and cocktails. The array of combinations can be delightfully dizzying, a fact which excites Springfield tea shop owner Gordon Davis. "There are over 54,000 combinations of boba drinks we can make," explained Davis, who opened Whimsy Tea nearly two years ago and started serving boba tea in November 2022. "My wife was the one who said, 'Boba is getting big – we need to do this.' Since then, we've tried to tweak and twist the formulas to find the ways that work best for our shop and also make it a little healthier."
In addition to the over 150 varieties of tea/herbal tisane on offer as well as freshly brewed Elm City coffee, guests at Whimsy Tea can spike their custom concoctions with a range of syrups and milks/cream and choose from nine types of boba. In addition to the traditional brown sugar tapioca pearls with their signature chewy texture, 'Popping Pearls' are available in flavors ranging from fruity strawberry to honey to chocolate. "The way we have this set up you can mix and match so many combinations, like peach tea with strawberry boba and cream, or spiced chai with oat milk and chocolate boba."
Unlike the toothsome texture of the traditional boba, the Popping Pearls have a thin gel-like skin which bursts when chewed, similar to a Gusher fruit snack. Developed with molecular gastronomy, the creation of popping boba relies on a process called spherification. When juice mixed with sodium alginate is dripped into a solution of water and calcium chloride the compounds react causing the sodium alginate to gel and form a membrane around the juice. The result looks almost identical to fish roe with a similar texture, but with vibrant fruit flavors.
My boba-obsessed 10-year-old accompanied me on a recent visit to Whimsy Tea to check out their boba offerings. She opted for an Italian soda with lime syrup and strawberry boba, fizzy and fun on a hot summer day. I was a little unsure as all the boba tea drinks I'd had in the past were always tooth-achingly sweet and I'm definitely a plain black tea and coffee kind of gal. Davis clearly enjoys finding the perfect unique brew for each customer, and once he'd heard my preferences he quickly scanned the shelves of tea and came up with a suggestion. The result, robust Scottish Breakfast tea poured over ice with brown sugar boba and a hit of oat milk, was one of the most delicious iced day drinks I've ever had. The earthy, tannic tea was tempered by the oat milk and the lightly sweetened boba, which had a rich cane sugar flavor that complemented the robust flavor of the tea.
Davis creates tea blends that are delicious and fun as well as ethically sourced. "We source over 700 ingredients from countries all over the world," he explained. "At the moment we only source rooibos tea from certain producers in South Africa because we can verify that child labor wasn't used in the process. There's a lot of trial and error, but in the end that's how you find the best product and eventually build those relationships with your suppliers."
Any of the teas at Whimsy Tea Company can be brewed to order and poured over ice, boba optional, hence the thousands of possible beverage combinations. Their cheerful storefront on Adams Street is an ideal respite on a hot summer day and features artwork by local artists, some of which also makes its way onto the labels for their teas. I'm looking forward to making it part of our summer routine. My kid has already asked me a dozen times when we're going to get boba again. Maybe I'll use it as an incentive for chores...boba for baseboards, perhaps?