It’s sweet, refreshing and incredible Instagram fodder — yes, I’m talking about bubble tea, the surprisingly addictive Taiwanese drink.
If you aren’t one to wait in excessively long lines for a bubble wrap waffle or matcha soft serve, this Asian-inspired dessert might just cure your sweet tooth. Bubble tea culture has existed in London for several years, but only a handful have survived the trend. As a self-proclaimed bubble tea connoisseur (I hail from the US, where bubble tea made its Western debut), I decided to try them out myself.
Here are some of London’s best bubble tea shops:
Biju Bubble Tea Room
Touted as bubble tea “without the nasties”, Biju is the spot if you’re looking for fresh ingredients and inventive flavours. Nicholas Phan, Biju’s 28-year-old founder, said he knew he wanted to start his own bubble tea specialty store when he noticed the gimicky concepts behind others in London.
Bubble tea, invented in the 1990s in Taiwan, was always a street food made with powdered milk, since refrigeration wasn’t available. As bubble tea shops travelled west, many kept with the tradition. However, Phan breaks the mold with his freshly brewed tea recipes at Biju, which has locations in Soho and at Westfield Mall.
Each loose-leaf tea is brewed fresh to order in an espresso-like machine, which sets Biju apart from any other shop in London. His staff then pulls the tea concentrate to cool it down. Once cool, the tea is mixed with organic British milk, almond milk, soy milk or coconut water and shaken until the namesake “bubbles” rise to the top.
“I wanted it to be a healthier, more real take on a dessert drink”, Phan told the Standard. “When I came up with it, I wasn’t just frustrated with the drinks. It was that people didn’t care about it, like they care about specialty coffee. With bubble tea, it was like ‘anything goes.’”
And, as it appears, Phan’s idea worked. According to a database that keeps track of orders, 90 percent of Biju visitors are repeat visitors. When I was there during Biju’s “off hours” on an early Friday afternoon, waves of young people came in and out, many of them telling me that they come at least once or twice a week.
“I like the peach with lychee jelly and chia seeds”, Arianna Arcilla, 16, of London told me. “It’s not too sweet, just the right amount. I come here about twice a week with my friends.”
Amanda Majsterek, 22, of London, said she’s been coming to Biju weekly since her brother introduced her to the spot.
“It helps to be different”, Phan said.
Great for: Health-conscious sweet tooths, vegans, those looking for a subtler sweetness than typical bubble tea shop offerings
Location: Old Compton St, Soho; Westfield London
Prices: Starting at £3.25
I tried: Taro Ube Milk Tea with coconut water “nata de coco”; Iced Passion Fruit Tea with popping passion fruits and chia seeds; Matcha Milk Tea with honey, tapioca pearls and chia seeds; Roasted Oolong Milk Tea (served hot) with tapioca pearls; Hong Kong Milk Tea with egg custard
Winning flavour: Matcha Milk Tea. Phan made me a special combination — almond milk and honey instead of sweetener, with extra tapioca and chia seeds. The tapioca pearls were the perfect, chewy texture, not too hard, but not soggy either. The chia seeds added extra texture, and the honey was delightfully subtle. Matcha is my favourite flavour, but can often taste chalky when not done well. Biju take on the Japanese staple was creamy and delicious. Phan added that anyone who comes in is welcomed to try substitutes like I did.
Tip: Almond milk complements many of the drinks well, and brings out bright colours better than whole or soy milk (If you’re keen to snap a pic).
This Soho staple has an enormous selection of teas, with interesting combinations like Cadbury chocolate or Oreo toppings. I found the tea to be quite sweet, but customers are able to customise how much sugar goes into their drink.
Locations: Newport Court, Soho; Orchard Square, Sheffield
Prices: Starting at £3.25
I tried: Rose Milk Tea with tapioca pearls, Lychee Black Tea with tapioca pearls, Lychee Star Mango Tea with tapioca pearls
Winning flavour: The Rose Milk Tea was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. The tea was sweet and creamy with floral notes, and the pearls had the slightest taste of honey. Definitely a great sweet tooth cure.
Tip: Grab a loyalty card — buy 10 drinks and the next one is free.
The UK franchise was founded by Eric Khaw, who said his aim was to create the “finest quality drinks and desserts”. The menu is pretty expansive, and includes specialty items like blended ice desserts and smoothies. Flavours vary from classic fruits like Mango and Lychee to more exotic flavours like Yakult and Rose Guanying.
Locations: Parkway, Camden; Queensway, Notting Hill
Prices: Starting at £3.49
I tried: Taro milk
Popular flavours: Summer Mango, Mooboo Jasmine, Honey Oolong.
Tip: If you’re student, be sure to bring identification. The discount for those still in school is a hefty 20 percent.
This Chinatown shop is small, no-frills but packed wall to wall on a weekday afternoon. They offer the classics - fruit teas, milk teas, tapioca balls - but manager Ison Au says that offering the basics is not enough to compete with the dozens of bubble tea shops that dot the neighbourhood. Because of the tight competition (one shop is even just next door), Happy Lemon tries its hand at a couple unique menu items, like special rock salted cheese (not exactly what it sounds like) and taro balls (delightfully soft and sweet). Ever since the Taiwan-based franchise opened in April 2015, the staff has made an effort to switch up the menu every six months or so.
"We aren't just the best tea or the best customer service", said 24-year-old Au. "With everything, we try to do our best."
Location: Newport Court, Chinatown
Prices: Starting at £2.45
I tried: Matcha Milk Tea with Rock Salted Cheese
Popular flavours: Lemon Green Tea, Taro Milk Tea
Tip: Big Happy Lemon fan? Purchase a £5 membership to the rewards program to access points, free drinks and special promotions.
Bubbleology was the first of its kind in London, setting roots in Soho in August 2011. The store has grown tremendously since then, now boasting 70 locations across nine countries. The menu's range is the most impressive quality, with items ranging from milk and fruit teas to alcoholic cocktails and coffee drinks. The brand might be the most recognisable in the capital due to frequent visits from the Beckham family, but the quality of the tea holds its own.
In my experience, the fruit teas taste better than the powdered milk teas, but there are plenty of flavours for even the pickiest tea taster to find one they fancy.
Location: Several around London
Prices: Starting at £3.59
I tried: Taro Milk Tea with tapioca pearls, Lychee Fruit Tea with tapioca pearls, Acai Berry Tea with tapioca pearls
Tip: Save your receipt. If you bring the receipt back before 1 p.m. the day after your purchase, your drink is half priced.
The Zimbabwe-based Amanzi Tea franchise is more gourmet tea house than bubble tea specialty shop, but the product quality shows through in all of their products. The modern tea bar makes each cup of tea individually, with over 100 teas on offer (including a dedicated Matcha menu). Although bubble tea is not the centrepiece of the shop, it still offers a high-quality sips and snacks for those looking to indulge.
Location: New Cavendish Street, Marylebone
Prices: Bubble teas start at £3.75
Popular flavour: Matcha Milk Tea and Taro Milk Tea
Tips: Try out Amanzi's loose-leaf tea bar while you're there. The shop offers blends designated to provide health benefits for skin, hair and nails.