Heng Hong Tan
Heng Hong is Mintel's APAC Food and Drink analyst based in the Kuala Lumpur office. He comes with over a decade's worth of experience identifying emerging food and drink trends.

Southeast Asians are no strangers to bubble tea, also known as milk tea or bubble milk tea. The drink, made from a combination of milk and tea topped with tapioca pearls, first originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and quickly spread through Asia.

Almost three decades on, during which time there was a lull in popularity, milk tea is now seeing a revival with the likes of Heytea and Nayuki from China innovating with multi-flavoured options. The cheese tea concept popularised by Heytea is a popular flavour in Southeast Asia, and fast-rising in popularity is brown sugar milk tea, which has an attractive pattern resembling tiger stripes when the milk is mixed with caramel syrup.

KOI’s brown sugar milk tea series (Source: KOI Facebook)

These new types of milk tea offer novel toppings and unique flavours. They are designed to appeal to a new generation of young consumers who actively share new, cool food and drink experiences on social media, as reflected in Mintel’s 2018 Global Food & Drink Trend ‘New Sensations’.

The resurgence of milk tea in Southeast Asia has attracted a growing number of players hoping to ride its popularity. The growing milk tea market means brands need to focus on unique concepts to stand out from the crowd.

Interesting concepts fuel milk tea craze

Players in the milk tea sector are piggybacking on viral food trends to pique consumer interest. Riding on the global popularity of traditional Chinese cough syrup Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa in milk tea, Indonesia’s Gooma and Singapore’s Woobbee have launched their own versions of Pei Pa Koa milk tea.

They are also tapping into the popularity of White Rabbit milk-flavoured candy, which has inspired other spin-offs such as ice cream and cake. In Malaysia, café operator Muse Eatery and tea bar Yumcha have jointly introduced White Rabbit bubble tea with blue boba. The blue colour in the boba comes naturally from butterfly pea flowers.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by YUMCHA My (@yumcha.my) on

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by GOOMA (@gooma.id) on

Milk tea brands are constantly innovating with interesting flavours and toppings to attract younger consumers who are after unique experiences. In Vietnam, Sharetea has innovated with The Fire series, aptly named for its use of chilli. The range includes Fire Strawberry, Fire Cocoa and Fire Mango. In the Philippines, Tipsy Tea, a new player in the vibrant milk tea scene, launched the country’s first milk tea infused with alcohol.

The use of special toppings can add sensory pleasure, as well as make the drinks Instagrammable and shareable on social media.

Meet Mr Ditto (Source: Ditto Modern Tea Facebook)
Ditto Modern Tea in Bangkok, Thailand launched a limited edition menu in May 2019 featuring a handmade marshmallow pig called Mr Ditto.

Pokeboba (Source: PlayMade by 丸作 Facebook)
PlayMade by 丸作, a Taiwanese bubble tea brand known for its interesting pearl flavours, launched a limited edition Pokeboba in Singapore in April 2019 to coincide with the screening of ‘Pokemon: Detective Pikachu’.

What we think

As competition heats up, milk tea chains in Southeast Asia will need to up their game in research and development and seeking out novel collaborations. This means more opportunities for ingredient suppliers to deliver more milk tea chains as the innovation cycle has become much shorter.