By Claudie Benjamin
When Sam Lin came from Taiwan to New York a little over a decade ago to complete a Master’s degree, he felt something was missing. That something, the treat to enjoy between studying, researching, and writing papers was Bubble Milk Tea. That new drink made its first known appearance in Tamsui, Taiwan in 1997. CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice considers itself to be part of the first generation of Bubble Milk makers. The innovative drink took off quickly and continues to expand.
Back in 2011, Sam recognized a window of opportunity. He opened the first of the 19 Coco shops he owns in NY and NJ in partnership with the Taiwanese CoCo Corporation. The CoCo’s opened in 2015 at 124 West 72nd Street. Sam’s shops are all in the Northeast US, and there are 5,000 CoCo shops throughout the world.
Quite different from the exquisitely refined black and green teas that have been part of Asian culture for centuries, Bubble Milk Tea is the creation of young people over the past 20 years who wanted something new, explains Valencia Lin, CoCo Operational Director for the Northeast US. “Young people wanted something different,” says Valencia.
Bubble Teas are generally sweet and fruit flavored. The drink made with fresh ingredients pours out in a variety of bright oranges and pinks. Because the bubble teas contain distinctively textured chewy tapioca “bubbles” it’s hard to make at home “because you would have to cook the tapioca,” says Valencia, explaining that this is really something you get at a shop.”
Where is the tea grown? “Our black tea is Ceylon black tea from India; Hoji tea from Japan (Kyushu Island) and High mountain tea from Taiwan.” Variety is offered applying to each of the flavors. “We customized drinks to our customers to make sure they are satisfied with their drinks,” says Valencia. For example, cold bubble teas can be made “regular ice, less ice, no ice.”
Discussing the emergence of Bubble Tea, Valencia says the specific variety of flavors offered stays on the menu for years because “Sam believes if you have a good memory of something, you come back for more.” The original bubble tea flavor is a permanent highlight that tops the menu. Seasonal specialties are added periodically. These include berry flavors for spring, fresh fruit blends for summer along with festive winter holiday drinks like Oreo chocolate that is not tea-based.
The shop’s distinctive logo that appears within the shop and on all its social media highlights a whimsical cartoon-like drawing in a style that’s very familiar in Taiwan and is much admired in New York. “People like them,” says Valencia.
Today, Sam has to be pleased that his homesickness for a sweet Bubble Tea matched New York customers’ taste for a new generation Taiwanese thirst quencher that’s refreshing to drink, and beautiful to look at.