The ready-to-drink (RTD) market continues to grow steadily, with the constant expansion of new types of beverages and numerous flavors, whether it's alcoholic or non-alcoholic. We've seen everything from flavored coconut juice and canned cold brewto drinkable cannabisand lion’s mane-powered tonics.
But what if drinks enthusiasts want to sip on something a little more chonky, but with tea?
Boba, also lovingly known as bubble tea, is the most recent beverage taking the RTD world by storm. Despite only recently hitting beverage aisles in stores and markets across the United States, Boba has a long history of being found in cafés. The creamy, bubble beverage is a quintessentially Taiwanese drink, dating back to its origins in the 80s.
The liquid treat was first made with either black or green tea, depending on the drinker's choice. It was then shaken through ice in a cocktail shaker to cool the tea and produce copious amounts of bubbly foam at the top of the glass. It wasn't until later that soft, chewy tapioca balls would get added to the beverage and transform it into an enormously popular sensation. Those chunky bubbles would give Boba its fitting nickname, "bubble tea."
Adding tapioca balls to Boba was developed by Lin Hsiu Hui of Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taizhong, Taiwan. In an interview with Asian Boss, Hui explains that the spontaneous idea came to her on a hot summer day as she daydreamed about childhood memories of eating tapioca pearls as a snack. She then shared the new "invention" with her colleagues, and shortly after, they too began selling it in their tea shop, kicking off the trend as we know it today.
As Priya Krishna of Food & Wine wrote, bubble tea began to take off in the 90s not only because of Taiwanese immigration but the emergence of a new kind of cafe culture helmed by our caffeine overlords, Starbucks. Now, folks were getting their coffee fix whenever they damn well wanted, and it opened the doors for other caffeinated beverages to be successful.
Today, there are countless boba stores across the U.S. Gong Cha, for example, was founded in Taiwan in 2006 and now has more than 160 stores across the United States. Kung Fu Tea started in Queens, New York, in 2010, and is now one of America's top bubble tea companies, with over 250 locations. In 2011, Boba Guys opened its doors in San Francisco, further advancing its popularity.
By 2032, the bubble tea market value is predicted to reach a high of $5.82 billion. With a product valuation coming in in the billions, there's no question why the RTD market is exploding, as there's room for opportunity for brands that get in early. Additionally, beyond the growing no-alc and low-alc markets, there's also growth within the soda-alternative market. Boba sits at the intersection of being both a specialty, novelty drink, as well as a healthier beverage alternative that's especially popular among younger Gen Z consumers driving demand.
Boba cafés, like Feng Cha, create an environment that acts as a bar alternative. They pride themselves on creating an inclusive environment with board games, music, and tables meant for sharing, ideal for those not old enough for a bar or looking for a replacement place to spend time with friends in the evening. What's more, beyond drinkers wanting more non-alcoholic choices, it can get marketed as a functional beverage that can boost energy and improve focus and memory. Currently, Costco sells a few brands of Boba, including Ocean Bomb's Bubble Milk Tea and Boba Bam's Instant Boba Pack. Other big retailers like Target, World Market, and Trader Joe's, among others, also carry RTD Boba brands.
Of course, while the bubble tea market is expanding, it remains a difficult product to create packaging for. Partly because there's a sense of enchantment in stabbing extra large straws through the plastic on top of a freshly brewed, personally made beverage, but also because the boba balls have to be kept at a precise temperature not to go flat or not become too hard.
Also, consumers likely want to see the tapioca balls huddled at the bottom of the beverage. Sticking it inside an aluminum can takes away part of the visual charm, and then you're left with glass (or worse, plastic).
"Anytime you have a novel product, design tends to be more education-oriented and derivative," states Fred Hart, creative director and partner at Interact Brands. "Showing traditional boba drinks, splashes, and product photography all come into play to educate folks, but unfortunately, make the category a bit boring and stale."
“We can look overseas to different Asian markets as a lens of success," he added, "but with so much beverage innovation, I'd bet Boba comes and goes as a fad over the next few years, like Matcha or CBD beverages. Without a function and the strange tapioca pearl elements, it will likely turn into a cult favorite but never see mainstream adoption."
Aside from maintaining the ideal temperature to stay fresh, it could also prove difficult to market because so many boba shops offer endless variations of flavors, ingredients, and special requests. That creates constraints for the RTD brands as they have to figure out how to not only keep the Boba fresh but also choose the most worthwhile options and varieties they can bottle. Further, Americans are known for their picky palates, and overcoming the hurdle of unadventurous eaters is another battle. With the almost flabby, definitely gummy, maybe too slimy texture, there’s definitely a consistency obstacle that these selective eaters undoubtedly have to overcome.
Because the RTD Boba market is relatively new to the U.S., especially with products outside the traditional Boba shop, education takes priority over creative design, leaving a lag in packaging design quality. Yet, as the market expands and consumers' understanding of the product grows, the opportunity for more innovative and beautiful packaging—particularly brands aimed at Gen Z—will likely emerge.
Still, in a category that thrives on freshness and seemingly infinite options at your beloved local boba café, it’s hard to envision that RTD Boba will be as successful as the nearly $6 billion valuation predicts. So long as folks enjoy fishing a slimey tapioca ball out of an oversized straw, it's likely to remain a cult favorite for some time.