CHOMP VS. CHOMP: BUBBLE TEA BATTLE

Growing up, one of my favourite things about the summertime was mobbing down to 7-Eleven with my friends to cash in the 2-for-1 slurpee coupons on the back of Z95.3FM bumper stickers (remember those?). No matter what stage of life you’re in, drinks with friends is always a good idea. Our choices nowadays are more so dominated by local craft beers (or wine if you’re fancy like that), but one of the best and most memorable food phases for me was the bubble tea boom in the late 90s-early 2000s. The funny thing is, I don’t remember thinking about how much I liked the taste of bubble tea. We were just obsessed with shooting pearls at each other as if it were a game of poser blow darts.

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Even as the bubble tea scene simmered down in the later 2000s, local staples Bubble World and Dragon Ball admirably demonstrated their staying power. Fast-forward to today and bubble tea is undergoing a resurgence thanks to a somewhat unexpected influx of international chain stores in the Vancouver area. Among these global juggernauts are Taiwanese brands Chatime, Gong Cha and CoCo.

Being the curious gluttons that we are, we decided to risk diabetes and find out how our local favourites stack up against the big boys. We wanted to keep things as similar as possible, so we chose only the house milk tea with normal sugar and no ice. This is important to keep in mind because we obviously know that some of the negative points can be solved by modifying your order to suit your individual tastes. 🙂 So how did it go with 2 people drinking 5 milk teas? Well…

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First up was Bubble World. Everyone knows Bubble World, right? One of the local originators, now with multiple locations across the Lower Mainland. I can honestly say it had been years since I last had a Bubble World milk tea and now I remember why: it was way too sweet. Not sweet like, “Whoa, that’s pretty sweet.” I’m talking “Is this tea-flavoured syrup?” sweet. At first I thought that maybe I’m just getting old and craving less sugar. But then I had a flashback to high-school days and even then I used to order everything from Bubble World half-sweet. I’m now thinking that Bubble World’s recipes are just generous with the syrup. Unfortunately, I can’t even comment on what else I thought about it because we just couldn’t get past the sweetness.

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Chatime was originally introduced to me as an international chain known for their freshly-brewed teas. I don’t know how other bubble tea places were producing their teas,  but I’ve been to Chatime several times and will say the freshness of their drinks has never been in question. Their milk tea was lighter, more fresh and more balanced than the sickly sweet one from Bubble World. It was very solid overall – no complaints. Side note: Chatime’s  Roasted Milk Tea is the real deal – if we used this one over the regular Chatime Milk Tea, I think this would’ve been a much shorter post.

As their name implies, CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice also emphasizes the freshness of their brewed teas. I hear their downtown location is constantly buzzing, which is good indication of how good their drinks are. I found that their milk tea had good tea flavour and medium sweetness, but something was off about whatever they used for the “milk” component of the drink. I initially thought the creaminess was nice but then we noticed a lingering aftertaste that was almost phlegm-inducing. Since this was the first time having CoCo, I will definitely give them another shot but this was not the best first experience.

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Gong Cha is was the third and final of the bigtime chain stores for us to try. I’ve heard good things about Gong Cha’s signature “milk foam” series, but their milk tea was just okay.  It was definitely drinkable, but still a bit on the sweet side. We both also noticed a slight grass jelly aftertaste, which can be a good thing if you’re into grass jelly. Still, the major take-away for me was  how much I would probably enjoy Gong Cha with 25-50% less sugar.

After all these years, Dragon Ball is still one of the busiest bubble tea shops in Vancouver. They still don’t have a website or even a Facebook page, but I guess no one minds when you make a good milk tea. Especially when directly comparing it sip-for-sip against the others, it becomes clear that Dragon Ball have their own distinct taste. I’m not saying this is a definitively good or bad thing, but it’s worth mentioning. We were happy to find that this one was pretty balanced: good tea flavour (although probably not freshly steeped/brewed like some of the others), the level of sugar was right on, and look ma – no phlegm! There’s something undeniably classic about old Dragon Ball, like meeting up with an good friend after being apart for a while.

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So who would’ve thought that with all the fuss about the big international chains coming to town, the best order-and-go milk tea around is still being served by the mom and pop store at the corner of Oak and King Ed? Dragon Ball certainly does live up to its cred as an oldie but goodie. The story might change once you start to consider all the different kinds of milk tea out there, what percentage of sugar and ice you like, and so on. But no matter what, my only advice to all you bubble tea drinkers out there: just remember not to go full sugar. Never go full sugar.

Chatime
Multiple locations (see website)
chatimeca.com

Coco Fresh Tea & Juice
Multiple locations (see website)
en.coco-tea.com

Gong Cha
Multiple locations (see website)
gongchacanada.com

Bubble World
Multiple locations (see website)
bubbleworld.ca

Dragon Ball Tea house
1007 W King Edward Ave
Vancouver, BC

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Doug Chan
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