BUB­BLE TROU­BLE

奶茶的江湖里,水很深

The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY HATTY LIU

The New York Times may have just dis­cov­ered it last year (and the year be­fore)—but in China, “bub­ble milk tea” is a bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try with fierce com­pe­ti­tion over recipes, trade­marks, and ever-evolv­ing gim­micks. From scalpers to back­ground ac­tors to ex­per­i­ments with cheese, TWOC looks at what makes a bev­er­age go vi­ral

The bev­er­age in­dus­try is very deep; there’s a lot that’s not ap­par­ent on the sur­face,” Mr. Yan warns me, his gaze owlish across a frothy dis­play of “milk cap” drinks on the counter. “It’s deep, and there’s a lot that I can’t talk about. I’m just let­ting you know as a cour­tesy.”

Last Au­gust, bev­er­age fans around the world were in­censed by a com­i­cally clue­less New York Times trend piece on “bub­ble milk tea,” that “cu­ri­ous amal­gam… [of] the Far East.” In re­sponse, they tweeted pho­tos and sang praises to the tasty, fresh, and in­no­va­tive con­coc­tions that the milk tea in­dus­try has been brew­ing for decades, ap­par­ently un­be­knownst to the Star­bucks snobs of the main­stream, a whole­some tale of an im­mi­grant cre­ation tri­umph­ing in the Amer­i­can bev­er­age mar­ket. This is not that story. In­stead, our tale be­gins in se­crecy and false­hood at Yan’s busi­ness, the bom­bas­ti­cally named Royal Tea: New Chi­nese-style Tea Flag­ship Store— in fact a one-win­dow kiosk down a late-night food al­ley. Yan makes coy ref­er­ences to be­ing a “just a small busi­ness owner,” ex­plain­ing that “it’s not con­ve­nient to re­veal” how he got started.

It must be noted, how­ever, that there are thou­sands of main­land milk tea shops that share the “Royal Tea” (皇茶) name, three-point crown logo, and menu dom­i­nated by “cheese milk cap” bev­er­ages—teas and smooth­ies served be­neath gooey layer of cream cheese foam. All are unau­tho­rized clones of a pop­u­lar Can­tonese chain founded in 2012, which seem­ingly never both­ered to reg­is­ter any of its trade­marks.

The plot cli­maxes in treach­ery and de­ceit, with the “vi­ral” open­ings of Can­tonese chain Hey Tea and Tai­wan’s Yi Dian Dian in Bei­jing and Shang­hai in early 2017. As cus­tomers pur­port­edly queued for four hours to get a drink, re­porters found both chains guilty of man­u­fac­tur­ing hype by hir­ing ac­tors to stand in line, baldly bank­ing on mil­len­ni­als to as­so­ciate long lines with must-have trends.

Pa­trons could also be un­wit­tingly queu­ing along­side milk tea scalpers, ac­cord­ing to state-run busi­ness blog Cy­zone. These hard­ened out­laws buy up vast, cheesy drink or­ders to hand off to a con­fed­er­ate, parked nearby with a mo­bile Sty­ro­foam cooler. A third mem­ber of the gang then walks up and down the line, ex­hort­ing pa­trons to skip the wait and grab a tea for 60 to 100 RMB (9.5 to 15 USD)—A markup of up to 500 per­cent (scalper ser­vices could also be or­dered on Wechat and Taobao).

All’s fair, it seems, in the milk tea war. The knowl­edge that their fa­vorite fad is but a bub­ble seems not to have dis­suaded tea fans. Hey Tea re­ported mil­lions of RMB in prof­its last year; glob­ally, the bub­ble tea in­dus­try is val­ued at around five bil­lion USD, and is cur­rently pro­jected to reach six to eight bil­lion USD by 2021 in China alone. Hey Tea also turned out to be none other than the orig­i­nal Royal Tea—it had re­branded in 2016, at the same time it re­ceived 100 mil­lion RMB in in­vest­ments to ex­pand na­tion­wide, and vowed to sue for any fu­ture breaches of copy­right.

Cyn­ics are con­grat­u­lat­ing all this as a well-played guerilla mar­ket­ing move: Let im­i­ta­tors boost the brand’s vis­i­bil­ity in re­gions where one can’t yet af­ford to ex­pand, then de­clare one­self the orig­i­nal and best ver­sion. The idea was not new; Tai­wanese chain Gong Cha, one of Royal Tea’s com­peti­tors, also failed to trade­mark its name when it came to the main­land in 2014, but milked a law­suit against a main­land copy­cat with “Sup­port Real Gong Cha” hash­tags on so­cial me­dia.

By now, though, the sheer num­ber of im­i­ta­tors are help­ing turn gongcha into a generic term. It’s as­so­ci­ated with the fresh, slightly bit­ter brew served at all Gong Cha out­lets real and fake, usu­ally un­der a inch of whipped cream—known as “milk cap tea” (奶盖茶) or, more fan­ci­fully, “mac­chi­ato.”

De­spite these brew-ha­has, milk tea re­mained a puz­zling phe­nom­e­non to even main­stream Chi­nese me­dia up un­til last year (never mind The New York Times). “We’ve al­ways drunk milk tea; how

did this be­come an ‘in­ter­net celebrity’ in 2017?” food blog Ai Chu Wei queried last June. Sev­eral main­land out­lets de­clared that year “the re­nais­sance of China’s tea in­dus­try” and “the year of new Chi­nese tea cul­ture.”

To­day’s vi­ral bev­er­ages bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to the drink ac­tu­ally in­vented over a cen­tury ago. Strictly speak­ing, north­west­ern herders in China had been brew­ing tea with milk for cen­turies—mon­go­lian su­utei tsai, Uyghur etken chai, as well as Tibetan po cha are all sta­ples of their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties.

The bev­er­age sold at to­day’s chain out­lets, though, was more di­rectly in­flu­enced by Hong Kong-style milk tea (港式奶茶). In this colo­nial-era adap­ta­tion of the Bri­tish af­ter­noon tea ri­tual, Chi­nese brew­ers re­placed fresh milk with evap­o­rated milk in the usual black tea, cre­at­ing a richer fla­vor. The liq­uid was strained in fine cloth to pro­duce its creamy tex­ture, lead­ing to the nick­name “silk-stock­ing milk tea” (丝袜奶茶).

Hong Kong still drinks an es­ti­mated 100 mil­lion cups of milk tea per year. How­ever, the drink’s real as­cen­dancy—and first war—arose in Tai­wan in the 1980s. Two tea shops, Chun Shui Tang of Taichung and Han Lin of Tainan, claimed to have orig­i­nated a new drink com­bin­ing two items then pop­u­lar at Tai­wanese night mar­kets: “foam tea,” cold black tea or milk tea that’s shaken un­til it froths, and cooked tapi­oca balls, an­other Bri­tish hang­over found in desserts from shaved ice to hot pud­ding.

For the next 20 years, the two busi­nesses bat­tled over the credit for the re­sult­ing drink, “pearl milk tea” (珍珠奶茶), also known as “boba” (波霸奶茶). Things fi­nally came to a head in 2005, when Chun Shui Tang’s in-house mag­a­zine made a veiled ref­er­ence to Han Lin’s owner “study­ing” their in­ven­tion. In re­sponse, Han Lin took their ri­val to court. The Tai­wanese judges (clearly not pre­dict­ing milk tea’s gangster-rid­den fu­ture) didn’t take sides; they sug­gested that the ri­valry had ac­tu­ally fos­tered “healthy com­pe­ti­tion.”

Mean­while, Tai­wanese im­mi­grants in the late 1980s and 90s brought the drink to North Amer­ica, where it’s known as “bub­ble tea.” The first out­lets opened on the main­land in the mid-90s, sell­ing drinks for as low as 2 RMB. In this era, on both shores, the bev­er­age had a rather seedy rep­u­ta­tion—the “milk” and “tea” were pow­dered mixes fla­vored with syrup, and it was usu­ally sold at in­ter­net cafes, cam­pus-ad­ja­cent street mar­kets, and other stu­dent

LET IM­I­TA­TORS BOOST BRAND VIS­I­BIL­ITY IN RE­GIONS WHERE ONE CAN'T YET AF­FORD TO EX­PAND, THEN DE­CLARE ONE­SELF THE ORIG­I­NAL AND BEST VER­SION

hang­outs, along with cheap snacks like fried chicken.

A food safety scan­dal would change ev­ery­thing. In May 2011, con­sumers world­wide were dis­mayed to learn that DEHP, a chem­i­cal used to make plas­tic, was found in milk tea syrup. The same year, Gong Cha’s first out­let opened in Tai­wan, mar­ket­ing their milk-cap brews as a safe, or­ganic al­ter­na­tive to the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion’s pow­dered cre­ations. Even to­day, the “real tea” guar­an­tee has lost none of its lus­ter: “No ar­ti­fi­cial syrups,” raved one Sohu blog­ger at Hey Tea’s open­ing. “This is the power of qual­ity,” wrote an­other for Netease, af­ter queu­ing sev­eral hours for Yi Dian Dian.

“In the food and bev­er­age in­dus­try, there’s al­ways a de­gree of im­i­ta­tion,” Yan ad­mits. In the in­dus­try, Gong Cha’s milk cap teas used to be nick­named the “Red Sea,” a drink so pop­u­lar that it over­whelms all other teas that com­peti­tors make—even my lo­cal juice bar in Bei­jing has added milk caps to keep up with trends, im­pro­vised with two spoon­fuls of evap­o­rated milk from a can, half­heart­edly whipped in a blender.

The milk tea war re­mains cut­throat, with an­a­lysts fore­cast­ing trou­ble for Hey Tea and Yi Dian Dian if they rely on hunger mar­ket­ing. The ephemeral na­ture of in­ter­net celebrity led to the shut­ter­ing of 14 ma­jor “vi­ral stores” in 2017, ac­cord­ing to food app Meituan and re­search firm Yun­y­ing­she; 78,000 milk tea shops also closed that year, in­clud­ing “large num­bers” of Royal Tea lo­ca­tions—a fate that Yan seems re­signed to. “Most of us are just in­di­vid­u­als try­ing to do busi­ness,” he shrugs. “You might see a lot of one brand now, then a year later, they might be all gone.”

Yet in­no­va­tion is not dead—and no one is throw­ing in the tea towel. The sloth­ful stylists at The Times might be aghast at the newer im­pro­vi­sa­tions in the mar­ket, be­yond mere “blobs.” Cheese tea, Royal Tea’s horse in the milk cap race, ar­rived in US mar­kets late last year to fan­fare from the Washington Post and Food Net­work. Tofu milk tea may not be far be­hind, hav­ing landed in Zhe­jiang prov­ince from Tai­wan in 2017 and been spot­ted in Vancouver.

On the main­land, “pot­ted plant milk tea,” made from Oreo shav­ings and a mint leaf, had its hey­day in the early 2010s. The choice to op­ti­mize tem­per­a­ture and sugar level, and a va­ri­ety of ad­di­tives from co­conut to pas­sion fruit jelly to squeezed grapefruit juice, is a must for to­day’s busi­nesses to com­pete. One can get con­nois­seur-qual­ity leaves and fresh fruits from Hey Tea and sev­eral other chains, or­ganic tapi­oca from Shang­hai’s Cha Wan, and even a “Star­bucks-level” drinking en­vi­ron­ment at inwe, a firm backed by Jd.com founder Liu Qiang­dong.

Still, if noth­ing else works, one can al­ways in­vent new gim­micks for mil­len­ni­als: At a Shang­hai out­let of milk-tea chain Dian Deng Pao (“Elec­tric Light Bulb”), TWOC is told about their sig­na­ture prod­uct by a fe­male em­ployee aptly named “Strive.” “Our tea is served in a cup shaped like a light bulb; we also have dog-shaped cups [for the Year of the Dog]. You can take it home, put flow­ers in, take pho­tos.”

“It also lights up when you push a but­ton,” she adds, beam­ing. “Our founder came up with this con­cept.” Like the ma­jor­ity of bub­ble tea mytholo­gies, the claim is not just un­likely, but dis­puted by an­other Tai­wanese chain. What ex­actly I am drinking, I ask Strive?

“Oh… it’s tea,” she’s blinks, mo­men­tar­ily con­fused. “From Tai­wan, I think? Just tea.”

FOR THE NEXT 20 YEARS, TWO BUSI­NESSES BAT­TLED OVER WHO WAS OWED THE CREDIT FOR ORIG­I­NAT­ING PEARL MILK TEA

Some names have been changed to pro­tect those too deep into the (bub­ble) tea trade

Tea with cheese foam or fresh fruit added is the cur­rent vogue in the mar­ket

Hey Tea re­ported lines up to four hours long on its open­ing day in Bei­jing's San­l­i­tun in 2017

A sleek dé­cor is one way to­day's milk tea shops at­tract mil­len­ni­als and com­pete with Star­bucks

Left to right: Milk cap tea and light bulb tea

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