Welcome to Bobaland, USA.
Los Angeles is the foundation of boba culture in the United States, thanks to a vast population of Asian Americans residing across Southern California. In the 1990s, the curious Taiwanese beverage began making its way stateside, fueling a relentless growth of shops across the country. A few years ago, naysayers claimed an impending boba shortage due to logistical issues and tapioca production, but aside from a small blip in supply, the scare made a lot of people realize how important this beverage is to Americans, and especially young Asian people who see boba, or bubble tea, as the ideal hangout beverage, after-school snack, or late-night sipper.
In the years since its introduction, boba has morphed into its own bona fide beverage industry, now fully realized with layers of customization, specialty ingredients, and preparations. Brands like Starbucks, Peet’s, and Dunkin’ have tried to capitalize on the trend. But the boba of 2022 is far different from that of a decade ago. While powders and flavorings still abound on the budget end of the market, today’s aspiring baristas shake fresh seasonal fruits, use organic milks (both dairy and plant-based), and infuse whole tea leaves to create colorful, beautiful beverages that can even serve as status symbols.
Boba culture has already begun permeating the mainstream, with boba ice cream and other products appearing at Trader Joe’s and Costco, but the beating heart of this chewy tapioca beverage is inside the San Gabriel Valley, where upwards of half a dozen boba shops can compete for business on the same block. Drive down Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel or Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia and you’ll pass countless shops. This guide for boba drinkers and creators covers everything from an introduction to the beverage, to a day behind-the-scenes at a busy SoCal shop, to an interview with a boba superfan who spends almost $1000 a year on his most beloved beverage.