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Handcrafted Boba: The Race to Create a Fresh Boba Trend

By Kristie Hang

Nov. 22, 2018
Click to view video: Handcrafted Boba

Healthy, handmade boba teas are catching on.

Gone are the simple days of pearl-shaped tapioca bubble teas, or as the locals call them, boba drinks. Originating in Taiwan, these chewy tapioca ball infused beverages first burst onto the U.S. market in the 1980s. It has since become a popular sweet beverage, with many boba cafes quenching the nation. Some 30 years later, boba tea makers are exploring other ways of reintroducing the novelty of the drink. First came miniature boba, then there was multi-colored boba, flavor popping boba, and more recently, cheese foam topped on boba drinks. The newest trend, and one that is likely here to stay, is freshly made in-house boba. Consumers today are much more health-conscious and are highly aware of where their food comes from and how it has been made.

Freshly made boba tends to have a lighter taste than the traditional machine-made boba. The process needs to be carefully monitored due to the intricacies in temperature during the cooking process. If the water temperature or dough is even slightly off, the batch becomes unsalvageable. Each boba flavor must be made separately in small batches, which can take up to half an hour per flavor. Fortunately for Angelenos, Los Angeles is at the forefront of the latest food trends, and two new boba tea shops are spearheading new trends in the city.

ONEZO:

OneZo is a popular franchise from Taiwan that now has locations all over the world. The brand is recognized as the world’s first boba tea franchise to make their boba in-house. Los Angeles natives Ronald Tang and Daniel Chou partnered with friends to bring the first U.S. Onezo to San Gabriel Valley in California. “We really wanted to bring something unique to the States. There are so many boba tea shops here, but no one makes their boba fresh and in-house,” says Tang.

"We really wanted to bring something unique to the States. There are so many boba tea shops here, but no one makes their boba fresh and in-house."

-Ronald Tang

Ronald Tang and Daniel Chou standing outside of OneZo
Ronald Tang and Daniel Chou from OneZo

One of the most important things for co-founder Tang was transparency. “We wanted everyone to see how we make the boba and to know exactly what is going into their every sip. Fresh ingredients and transparency aren’t things that you see a lot in the area. It’s a newer concept, and it was very important for us to make that a key part of our store,” says Tang.

OneZo has an open kitchen with a full view for customers. Chou and Tang wanted to show the entire process from start to finish. Tang and Chou were inspired by Boba Guys, a company based in San Francisco that provides transparency and healthier options when it comes to boba. Boba Guys made their name by creating boba drinks without powders and non-dairy creamers, while also using loose-leaf tea, real fruit, and premium milk alternatives. Chou and Tang wanted to take it one step further with OneZo, doing all of that in addition to making their boba in-house.

To achieve that goal, the team trained in Taiwan and had to complete tea sommelier and tapioca chef classes. Although OneZo has a special boba-making machine that was imported from Taiwan, the boba chef is still the most intricate part of the cooking process.

“It’s not just a throw-in-all-the-ingredients–into-the-machine type of thing,” says Chou. The boba chef has to make and mix each of the flavored doughs and constantly monitor the water temperature to make the perfect boba. There’s no stepping away mid-process. One wrong move and the entire batch has to be thrown away, which Chou confirmed has happened in the past. The black sesame boba, for example, starts with ground black sesame powder, which has to be carefully mixed with tapioca starch before being closely monitored for the right temperature. Hot water has to be added throughout the process to ensure that the recipe and texture turn out just right.

Daniel Chou making handcrafted boba at OneZo
Daniel Chou is making handcrafted boba at OneZo
“It’s not just a throw-in-all-the-ingredients-into-the-machine type of thing.”

-Daniel Chou

OneZo makes their honey, caramel, black sesame, and taro boba in small batches from scratch every day, multiple times a day. There is a window view of the process, which often draws a crowd. The OneZo menu features eight staple drinks, in addition to secret menu specials every month that are announced via social media. OneZo’s roster of drinks includes milk tea, Uji matcha latte (made with high-grade matcha from Japan), bamboo charcoal latte (made of a probiotic active charcoal), black tea latte, mixed fruit tea, caramel milk tea, honey green tea, and a caramel tieguanyin latte (a premium type of Chinese oolong tea).

“We are extremely committed to elevating the boba game for the consumer. Most of the other boba places out there really focus on their margins,” says Tang. “For us, we feel like we owe it to our customers to do something bigger. If there’s a new ingredient out there that is more expensive but will make our boba drinks better, you can be assured that we’re going to explore that. Number one for us is to make a great natural drink. We’re not going to just think about our margins.”

OneZo’s all natural, all handmade theme extends to their specialty items as well. The LA outpost also features Hong Kong egg waffles and Korean bingsu shaved ice, both of which are topped with their fresh boba. The Hong Kong egg waffles are topped with local favorite Fosselman’s ice cream, which is also made in-house, and OneZo is also working on launching a special edition milk tea bingsu topped with boba in the near future.

A crowd gathers in front of the OneZo store before opening hours every day. The lines usually wrap around the building and down the shopping plaza. Because the store only opened in August, the team is still trying to figure out a way to expedite the long lines. Despite the 45 minute to one hour wait, Tang confirmed that they sold 1,000 drinks the day before this interview was conducted.

“We especially want to win over people who typically don’t like boba and change their mindset. If you know that we spend night and day making boba here, and you see the difference, and you’re going to want to have the fresh boba, says Tang.”

OneZo currently has a location in Oakland but plans to open stores in New York and possibly New Jersey. Tang and Chou hope that all-natural homemade boba will become the norm in the states soon.

Address: OneZo 500 N Atlantic Blvd #168, Monterey Park, Calif., 91754

TEA MARU:

Tea Maru is a mom-and-pop shop that also makes its boba in-house. The brainchild of Kevin Kwan and his business partners, Tea Maru officially had their grand opening in October 2018.

Kwan, who has always loved boba drinks, was also inspired to create a healthier alternative for consumers. As someone who is in the healthcare industry, Kwan was inspired to make a healthier version of the boba drinks so that more people could enjoy them without worrying about the excessively sweet, sugary drinks. Kwan and his partners traveled to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, exploring many different boba shops and deciding what types of boba they liked.

“By making boba from scratch, we know exactly what’s in the boba without additives. We can be sure that the ingredients are good,” says Kwan.

"By making boba from scratch, we know exactly what’s in the boba without additives. We can be sure that the ingredients are good."

-Kevin Kwan

Exterior of Panda Brew Pub in Beijing
Making handcrafted boba at Tea Maru

Kwan learned how to make fresh, handmade boba in Taiwan and returned to Los Angeles with a boba machine to make the tapioca balls in-house. Together, the team spent months creating Tea Maru’s signature drinks from scratch through lots of trial and error, until they settled on their current roster of drinks. Tea Maru has six signature drinks on the menu. There’s the Kiwi Citrus Breeze, Maru Milk with brown sugar, Tea Maru latte, Uji Matcha latte with strawberry boba, Grapefruit Fantasy, and handmade taro milk with sweet potato boba. They have five types of handmade boba made in-house each day: strawberry, sweet potato, orange, brown sugar, and crystal. What makes Tea Maru unique is that they take fresh fruit and blend them into juice before using the juice to make their fresh boba. The sweet potatoes, for example, have to be boiled, peeled, and smashed before adding tapioca mix to make it into boba.

“Our entire philosophy is to make everything all-natural. Our milk tea does not use creamer, which is something that is commonly used at the majority of boba places in the U.S. We use fresh, organic milk, and that’s actually how it should be. If you visit Taiwan, you’ll notice that boba places in Taiwan all use fresh milk,” says Kwan.

Tea Maru uses all fresh fruit for their fruit teas and boba, including squeezed lemon juice, grapefruit juice, mango, kiwi and strawberries. “Freshly made boba has a more understated taste than most people are used to. You don’t want to overpower the drink with the boba,” adds Kwan.

Two boba drinks side by side made with handcrafted boba
Boba drinks from Tea Maru
“Freshly made boba has a more understated taste than most people are used to. You don’t want to overpower the drink with the boba.”

-Kevin Kwan

The theme of the store is artisanal boba drinks made in small batches using all natural ingredients. For example, the brown sugar used is not from syrup, no powder or additives can be found in any of their drinks, and the tea leaves are imported from Taiwan. Freshly made boba has a short shelf life and cannot be reused the next day. At Tea Maru, the boba is continuously boiled throughout the day so that the boba balls stay soft and chewy.

So what is Kwan’s favorite, must-order drink off Tea Maru’s menu?

“I love our Maru Milk. Everything we use is fresh, organic milk, fresh boba, and brown sugar has to be cooked extensively and not from syrup,” he shares.

Since Tea Maru is relatively new, they are still working out the kinks, but Kwan says that he will be working with delivery apps very soon so that people can have their house-made boba sent to them.

Address: Tea Maru, 709 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, Calif., 91776


Hang & Eat with our food blogger Kristie Hang as she explores the latest East West food trends.

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