The Toronto Bubble Tea Battle
Toronto is reaching peak bubble tea. Now only one question remains: which tea shop is the best?
Bubble tea and I go way back. It was the early 2000’s, not long after bubble tea emerged as a standalone commodity in Montreal. In the streets of our tiny Chinatown - a neighbourhood barely spanning 2 square blocks - my university friends and I spent most of our nights parked at famed bubble tea lounge, L2. There, we studied and played Big 2 into the wee hours of the night, all whilst slowly sipping radioactive-like liquids through giant straws out of colossal mugs that would put German beer halls to shame. Those were the good old days where $3.85 bought you your weight in bubble tea, and no one cared that it was mostly made of sugar and FD&C Yellow #3.
Legend has it that bubble tea was created in Taiwan in the 1980’s, though its true origin story remains a mystery. Many have been credited with its inception; a tea vendor outside an elementary school who added fruit flavours to appeal to school children, a Night Market vendor who combined shredded ice and tea for a refreshing treat on hot summer nights, and the least interesting: a product development manager of a teahouse chain. The latter, Lin Hsiu Hui, however, is known to be the developer of bubble tea’s signature tapioca pearls. Contrary to popular belief, the tapioca pearls are not the “bubble” in bubble tea. Rather, the bubbles that appear at the top of the tea after being shaken with flavourings and/or milk are what gave bubble tea its name.
Bubble tea has come a long way since my formative years. While bubble tea shops have been around for eons in Markham, Richmond Hill, and North York, downtown Toronto has only seen a noticeable boom in bubble tea shops in recent years. A basic Google Maps search will turn up at least 18 standalone shops in the 8 square kilometres between Bathurst, Bloor, Church, and Queens Quay. And that number is still growing. Most are iterations of existing Asian chains, some operating over 2,000 stores worldwide. Competition is aggressive to say the least, as large chains are battling for prime real estate, setting up shop merely steps away from each other.
We felt the market was ripe for a good old 3 Spoons Throwdown. So, putting our taste buds to the test - and sacrificing about a week’s-worth of reasonable sugar consumption - we each chose a shop to pit against the others in a downtown Toronto battle for bubble tea supremacy. To make things interesting, we chose Chatime, a chain that is well-established in Toronto with numerous locations; their longtime international rival Gong Cha, who have only recently entered the Toronto market with only one downtown store; and unique Toronto-based modern mom-and-pop, Jule.
To following method was used to ensure consistency across our evaluations:
- Bubble tea shops were visited on the same day, one after the other.
- In the case of Chatime’s multiple locations, we chose one by using a combination of geography and Google, Yelp, and blog ratings. Geography had us pick the store closest to both Gong Cha and Jule with the assumption that they would then be in more direct competition. It also ensured that we would taste all bubble teas with the least amount of time in between tastings. We also picked the location with the highest ratings with the belief that only their best foot forward should be considered.
- The exact same order was placed at each location: 1 regular sized classic black milk tea (aka Hong Kong style milk tea) with tapioca, regular sweetness and ice.
- Bubble tea was consumed onsite upon receipt.
- Each of the 3 Spoons sipped from the same cup.
The bubble teas were evaluated based on tea flavour, sweetness, creaminess, and consistency and taste of tapioca pearls. Other factors were taken into consideration, such as service, atmosphere, and cleanliness, in evaluating overall execution.
439 Yonge St, Toronto, ON M5B 1T3
Chatime hails straight from the motherland - Taiwan - and so do all their ingredients. With over 800 stores worldwide, it claims to be the #1 global bubble tea brand. The first store opened in Toronto in 2011 and they have since continued to expand aggressively. While they encourage you to customize your drink, they also promise consistency through “advanced tea technology” designed to brew each cup with the same exact timing, temperature, and proportion.
Considering the uniformity in their business model, Chatime serves as a good standard to start. The downside, however, is that their cookie-cutter format translates to the same experience you’ll get at a fast-food joint. With a long line-up in a cramped space, and dirty, sticky tables that see very little cleaning, this location is not for socializing. It’s quite evident that they would much prefer that you grab-and-go.
The bubble tea is sweet and creamy as expected, with an aftertaste that resembles a combination of caramel and Carnation evaporated milk (which is typically used in HK-style milk tea). The tea flavour is subtle, but there. The tapioca balls are dense, but consistent. They’re very chewy and are slightly sweet.
A regular milk tea with bubbles here will cost you $4.75 for what we’ve eyeballed to be about 400 ml.
575 Yonge St, Toronto, ON M4Y 1Z2
Gong Cha was established in Taiwan in 2006, and has since opened over 1,300 stores around the world. One of only three stores in Toronto, the downtown location, recently opened its doors last October. Despite being a much larger company than rival Chatime, Gong Cha’s modern wood-based design, favourable lighting, comfortable seating, and unlimited kpop make it a much more inviting atmosphere.
Gong Cha’s milk tea came close to Chatime’s; both very sweet and creamy, with a caramel aftertaste. The difference was in the tapioca and the tea itself. The tapioca balls were quite bland and slightly smaller in size. They were also inconsistent - some were chewier than others. The tea flavour was indistinguishable and only noticeable in the aftertaste. Perhaps there was a little too much ice; when we reached the bottom of the cup, our last sips were heavily diluted. At $5.50 for about the same 400 ml serving as Chatime, Gong Cha’s bubble tea was the most expensive and expectations were therefore higher.
20 Carlton Street, Toronto, ON M5B 2H5
Unlike most bubble tea shops, Jule is a single-store operation. Open since 2014 with community in mind, the shop has put extra care in its warm and artful design featuring an abundance of live plants. In addition to bubble tea, the shop offers delectable gourmet desserts and also serves hot meals.
The milk tea had just the right amount of sweetness and was less creamy than the others. The smooth and thinner texture indicated that the flavouring was likely not powder-based, especially since the tea taste was prominent. The tapioca balls were soft with a consistent chew, and slightly sweet adding some depth to the overall beverage.
The biggest differentiator was the table service, which is a rarity in this part of the city. No lining up and no sticky tables. Despite the premium fixtures and service, this place also offers the most value at $4.95 for a 500 ml serving, including tapioca.
Special Mention: Nohohon
467 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M5V 2A9
There are only two locations for Nohohon: one in Toronto and one in New York. The tiny minimalist shop celebrates Japanese ingredients and flavours. Nohohon was part of our original shortlist of contenders, but it didn’t take long for us to realize that this place doesn't really belong with the others. It's the anti-bubble tea establishment. It is bizarro bubble tea; the opposite, in almost every way, of everything you know bubble tea to be. But in a good way.
The closest equivalent to the classic milk tea was their Originalbrew Hojicha Milk Tea. The tea takes centre stage here, even in its milky renditions. There are only two milk options: almond and soy. Sweetness is barely there. The tapioca pearls are dense, chewy, and with subtle flavour. We weren’t sure if you could really call this bubble tea at all, but we all agreed this beverage was something special deserving of recognition.
Jule was by far our unanimous favourite. In addition to superior bubble tea, in our opinion, the overall experience was more pleasant. It was also better value considering the table service.
This verdict does come with a caveat or two, however. To date, this has been one of our toughest Throwdown articles. To start, given the market saturation of bubble tea, we were wrought with indecision and an ever-increasing list of possible contenders. But while choice, for us, was a burden, its overwhelming presence is likely behind bubble tea’s ability to continue sprouting.
Bubble tea brands continue to attempt to differentiate themselves through innovation in their brewing techniques and creative offerings. While not all black milk teas with bubbles are created equal, some shops’ claim to fame is not based on mastering the classics, but pushing the envelope forward with their own concoctions. For instance, Gong Cha offers a signature foam milk, or “moustache” milk and, during our visit, we noticed themed series of drinks based on strawberries and oreos.
Another issue that was brought to my attention by a friend (with inside connections to three different chains), is that despite many chains’ attempts to standardize production, you will still likely get a different product if you visit a franchised operation versus a corporate-run shop. This is why ratings for different shops under the same chain vary so greatly.
Lastly, let’s get real. Most people don’t go to bubble tea shops for the quality of the tea. If they did, they wouldn’t be asking for it to be flavoured beyond recognition and loaded up with sugar. It all depends on what you’re looking for at that very moment. Bubble tea is its own beverage and the beauty of it is that you can have it any way you like.
Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.