Blablabla Milk Tea and the Magic of Branding


What you’re tasting is a derivative of masala chai, and if it sounds Indian, that’s because it is. You can trace tea from its current incarnation–the one co-opted for apple green interiors, sealed packaging, and wide straws–back to its roots in China and India (both of which are HUGE, making it difficult to retrace any exact origins, but it definitely wasn’t a European invention), where it was one of the main exports of the East India trading co (both British and Dutch). “Tea” is “te” or “cha” in any language, making it easy to order in any foreign country. Is tea a byproduct of empire? Who gives a shit about overthinking any of that when empire tastes this good.

Who knew carbonated prune juice would ever be such a big hit?

Mmmmm….tasty, tasty empire.

Comparing Chinese with Indian is like comparing Oolong with Assam. You think you can tell the difference, but it could just be the sales pitch sinking into your taste buds. What you’re tasting is sugar and milk, a mixture mastered by every cereal brand since the dawn of time. If this is a matter of mixture, tea could be a toss-up between shaken or pulled. In that case,

(As for the sugar content, you can just guess the number of cans of condensed milk that went into one order of Teh Tarik. Is this what 100% tastes like? Tasty, tasty, tasteh tarik.)

Tea that was shaken and not stirred came back to the republic of China for a rebrand in the tea “cafes” of Taiwan. With the addition of tapioca pearls, it was poured into a sealed plastic cup “foh take away”. With that, tea stopped being about slowly sipping a brew valued for its medicinal purposes. This is where the concept of fast tea comes in. Does the addition of cafe space make a difference to tea sales? I guess so. I mean, does anyone go to these places alone? (Besides me, but going to these places alone results in entries like this one.)

Anyway, observe: kiosk vs cafe


Forget that cafe meant coffee in several languages: this was about overthrowing the supremacy of the bean. Bubble tea and its sealed packaging meant drinking your tea on-the-go, but the creation of cafe space meant relishing it in the company of your friends. Taking your time to customize your sugar levels and sinkers, convincing yourself that your order is just as unique as you are, in your cute little oxfords and cardigan, you.

This is about a new era not only of sustainability, but of individuality and cute little oxfords and looking like a librarian. For this we have a new battle cry, a cry for peace and putting birds on things, and a new logo – not the flower, but the leaf. It signified belonging, while rising up, all without compromising one’s identity; even if practically every milk tea cafe (or parlor or shop) had the same interiors, the same menu, and the same cups.

The bean had long been charged with connotations of corporate culture–a coffee maker being a fixture in every office pantry–no matter how many times you slap the words “FAIR TRADE” on every sack, pack, and sachet, the bean was complicit in an era where coroners could report death by overwork.

Compared to the bean, the leaf was positively benign. The leaf was Asian in a way that remained untainted by salarymen and tiger moms. Forget empire, forget plastic cups, forget about overthinking anything because this is not about any of that, this is about you. Isn’t that your name written on the cup?

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