© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Exploring San Francisco's wave of fancy boba

“Cereal Milk Boba” from CC Flickr user Jeffrey Chiang, RESIZED AND RECROPPED


Boba tea first appeared in Taiwan in the 1980s. It came to San Francisco in the 1990s, and is now all over the world, from Armenia to Guatemala to South Africa.


It started as sweet iced milk tea with tapioca balls, but over the past 30 years, boba has evolved. Shops can have dozens of flavors. And while it’s mostly considered an inexpensive sweet treat, a pair of San Francisco spots are now trying to take bubble tea to the next level.

The first is Boba Guys. While it’s hard to miss all the bubble tea shops around San Francisco, the chain of Boba Guys stores tries to stand out from the rest. At their Hayes Valley spot, the windows go all the way up to the ceiling to let in daylight. Their work area and kitchen is in the center of the room, allowing customers to see the whole process. Later in the day the store will be packed, but right now it’s the morning and the hustle and bustle hasn’t begun yet.

Growing up with boba

Co-founder Bin Chen grew up with boba, he’s from a small town near Houston. “It was a really, really, really small town and I was one of the only Asians. So we would go to Houston and kinda get our Chinese food and get other cultural delights. And boba. I remember it was in this small strip mall that also had a Chinese theater and an arcade -- and there was this small dessert shop. That's kinda where the very first time I ever had boba and it was amazing. It blew my mind.”

There are tons of boba stores in San Francisco, so what made Chen and co-founder Andrew Chau, want to start up their own? “Because, for those that don't know, boba in many places is served with powder and artificial syrups,” he explains. “In 2011 there were very few places that were using real tea. And so we thought, ‘Because they call it boba milk tea, why don't they actually use real milk and real tea?’”

Compared to other shops that serve 60 flavors or more, Boba Guys try to focus on around a dozen drinks. They say they serve higher quality boba tea. And they start each day by making toppings to serve fresh to customers.

“We cook tapioca for three minutes,” explains Chen, “and we're constantly stirring it, making sure that it's cooking correctly and evenly. Then we cool it for another 30 minutes and then it takes another 20 minutes to soak in our house-made syrup. For us it's very time consuming. But that's what makes our tapioca balls and our boba so delicious.”


Boba Guys charge around four to six dollars for a boba milk tea -- a bit higher than most boba shops. He says while most boba drinkers are younger, they’ve been trying to get older people to come into their stores. “The same people that would buy a nice latte at a third wave coffee shop,” says Chen, “would also consider boba guys for a mid day pickup.”

The worlds most expensive boba tea

But Boba Guys aren’t the only ones trying to make a fancier boba tea in San Francisco. One event tried to answer the question: What is the “World’s Most Expensive Bubble Tea”? A drink that caters to not just those who enjoy drinking boba tea, but connoisseurs of boba tea.

For San Francisco design week, the tea company TEALEAVES and the executive chef of San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel collaborated to try and make what they call the “World’s Most Expensive Bubble Tea.” It goes by the name “Boba Teashake.”

In June, they held a tasting at the Pinterest office in San Francisco. George Henston works here at Pinterest and found out about this event through work. “I like boba tea and I heard this was the most expensive boba tea. So I had to try it out.”

The 50 guests are excited to be here. Everyone is talking and laughing. Lana Sutherland from TEALEAVES gives a presentation explaining their process and soon after everyone begins lining up to get a cup of the Boba Teashake. The chef makes the drinks in front of everyone.


Wanning Chu is a designer who went to a lot of events at SF Design week. “I taste a little salted caramel in it,” she says as she sips the boba tea. “It's a very, very light tea. Mmmm. Oh my gosh -- the passion fruit is really good.”

Luxurious boba tea

Franck Desplechin created the recipe. He's the executive chef at the 5-star St. Regis Hotel San Francisco. “We looking for luxury,” he explains. “We have high-profile and high-end customers. We’re targeting someone who is going to pay $700 or $800 a night. So even though we're gonna serve our beef burger in our restaurant, it has to be the best beef burger in the world.”

He worked with TEALEAVES to get the perfect tea. “I'd say it was a fun challenge. It opened my eyes for a lot of things. It made me discover a new culture with Taiwanese culture to understand where this boba tea came from and why it's so impactful on a country like United States,” Desplechin says.

“We're known as the tea-maker for 5-star hotels, Michelin chefs, mixologist, and people just wanting a really great cup of tea in the luxury of their own home,” adds TEALEAVES CEO Lana Sutherland.

SF Design Week is an opportunity for designers to showcase their unique works, which Sutherland says excited them: “That was a great excuse to look at something that has maybe been around for awhile, but never had something new added to it in terms of layering or flavors. And so bubble tea seemed to be the natural thing.”


They have yet to finalize the discussion of whether to sell this product or not. If they do, it would likely be sold at the lobby lounge of the St. Regis San Francisco.  

But while the future of their “World’s Most Expensive Bubble Tea” has yet to be announced, back in Hayes Valley, Boba Guys are setting their sights on the big picture.

“We really model ourselves after companies like Philz or In-and-Out,” explains co-founder Bin Chen, “they're fast growing companies but still retain a lot of soul. And that's kinda what we aim for as well.”

They already have six stores in San Francisco, and three stores in New York City.

Susanna Luo was part of KALW’s SFUSD high school summer internship program in 2017, and is a student at Galileo High School.