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China’s Bubble Tea Boom: Top 10 of Popular Milk Tea Shops in the PRC

China’s bubble tea (aka pearl milk tea) market is booming: these are the top 10 popular milk tea shops in the PRC.

Ryan Gandolfo

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With an ancient historical tradition of drinking tea, Chinese consumers are now turning to a different cup of tea; the iced and creamy bubble tea is a national favorite that’s also crossing borders and becoming more popular outside of Taiwan and mainland China. What’s on Weibo provides an introduction to the bubble tea craze and a top 10 of milk tea shops in mainland China.

April 30 has recently been named National Bubble Tea Day by the US-based milk tea chain Kung Fu Tea, which aims to introduce bubble tea and its culture to consumers all around the world.

The launch of this brand-new ‘National Bubble Tea Day’ and the general growing presence of milk tea shops in various countries shows the attraction of bubble tea – both in and outside China.

More Milk Tea than Coffee

Pearl milk tea or bubble tea, also known as ‘boba’ (bōbà nǎichá 波霸奶茶/ zhēnzhū nǎichá 珍珠奶茶), was first invented in Taiwan in 1988 – and has since become an important part of Taiwanese food culture. Over the past decade, the bubble tea craze has also blown over to mainland China.

For those unfamiliar with the drink; most pearl milk tea products contain an iced tea base and milk, with chewy tapioca pearls and sugar. Although this is a standard recipe, China’s many bubble milk tea shops and chains now have a growing selection of fruit flavored bubble tea or chocolate flavored bubble tea beside their original flavored bubble tea.

Since milk tea came to the mainland market in 1996, it has beaten coffee as a drink in terms of popularity. According to China marketing platform lbzuo.com (鹿豹座), Chinese now consume five times more milk tea than coffee. After the arrival of pearl milk tea to mainland China, coffee has taken a backseat, meaning that milk tea, in 15 years, beat what coffee in China did in 130 years. Bubble tea consumption continues to rise at a high rate each year.

Early on, pearl milk tea products were primarily targeted at young, female students between the ages of 15 and 25. Over recent years, however, the demographics have expanded as more men and working professionals are joining the craze.

The alternative to Starbucks

What makes pearl milk tea such a tantalizing drink to so many? Some say it is the combinations of having a drink and chewy snack in one, others claim the flavors are unrivaled, especially when compared to coffee; while western countries are immersed in the coffee lifestyle, China is more invested in milk tea. 

This also has to do with China’s ancient tea culture. Although coffee has gradually become more popular in mainland China since the arrival of large chains such as Starbucks, some experts, such as tea entrepreneur Jiang Jiadao, say it is not about the coffee itself, but about new realities of modern life, where people want to pick up a quick drink or sit down somewhere with a friend in between meetings.

Long lines in front of a milk tea shop.

“It’s not because they love the coffee,” Jiang told SCMP: “The popularity of Starbucks doesn’t have anything to do with changing tastes for coffee instead of tea, or more love of Western culture. I think we love the lifestyle it stands for. If we can offer a similar lifestyle and experience over tea, this would work.”

And it seems to be working. People do not just love the drink’s taste and texture, bubble tea has also become more popular in China – especially amongst the younger generations – because they love the style and image of China’s new trendy tea house brands.

As reported by Caixin Global, Chinese bubble tea makers recently have been further building on their cool bubble tea image by merging with bookstores, popular clothing brands, or restaurant chains.

Mango Cheese Milk Tea

To attract more customers in a growingly competitive industry, milk tea brands now also add popular new flavors, snacks, and sweets to their menu. Recently, the so-called ‘dirty [chocolate] bread’ or ‘zang zang bao’ went viral as it was placed on the menu of various milk tea shops, conquering the hearts of Beijing’s milk tea lovers.

The ‘dirty bread’ is a popular snack sold by milk tea shops.

Some milk tea stores are also staying ahead of their competition by releasing products that grab people’s attention. The chain Happy Tea, for example, released their ‘Mango Cheese Tea’ after they found that many Chinese social media users search for both ‘mangos’ and ‘cheese’.

On Chinese social media, the bubble tea trend is clear from the many photos posted of the drink every single minute. “After a long day of work, all I need is my bubble tea,” are among the things written along with colorful and appealing pearl milk tea pics.

Drinking Bubble Tea is something to show to social media followers; a trendy drink, a lifestyle.

Some netizens express the sheer joy pearl milk tea can bring to people, with various celebrity idols now also endorsing China’s major milk tea shops, such as Yi Dian Dian (1點點).

Netizen @CLSD writes: “Tonight on my way home from work I made a detour at Yi Dian Dian. As I waited in line a while, I could see everyone’s smiles as they walked out with their milk tea. People who enjoy milk tea are so lovely. It’s indescribable. My favorite singer is also a milk tea enthusiast…”

Others express their new-found love for the drink, writing: “I’m done for. I just started liking milk tea…”

Recently, long queues outside of milk tea shops have become a daily occurrence in major cities throughout China.* The craze for milk tea has been aided by strategic placement of stores nearby schools and office buildings. More often you can see milk tea brought into restaurants, schools, and offices. In contrast to coffee, milk tea is consumed virtually any time of the day.

The Most Popular Milk Tea Shops in China

Here is a top 10 of the most popular milk tea brands in China, of which many already have or will expand outside of Taiwan or mainland China. This list is compiled based on various sources, including Chinese online marketing magazines and Chinese food bloggers (e.g. 91yinpin.com, mroyal.cn, sina.com, sohu.com):

 

● #1 Yi Dian Dian (1點點 or 一点点奶茶)

Yi Dian Dian started in Taipei in 2010. The chain specializes in Taiwanese style milk tea, fruit tea, as well as desserts. Currently, Yi Dian Dian has over 600 stores in China and the Philippines. The company is expanding operations into countries such as England, Thailand, and Japan. Their main clientele is young students and professionals.

 

● #2 HEYTEA(喜茶)

HEYTEA, formerly called Royal Tea (皇茶), was founded in 2012 by the Guangdong-born Yunchen Nie (聂云宸), who aspired to launch a Starbucks-style brand in the tea market. It has worked; the company now has 80 outlets in 13 cities. HEYTEA is the innovator behind “cheese tea” (奶盖茶, sweet creamy tea). Since this creation, they have concentrated on finding and incorporating high quality tea into their line of products. In 2016, they received a 100 million yuan outside investment.

 

● #3 Coco (coco都可奶茶)

Coco first opened in Taipei in 1997. Over the last 20 years, they have opened over 2000 stores worldwide with locations in the US, UK, Thailand, and Korea among others. Coco offers customers a variety of beverages that meet a wide range of taste preferences. They also perform regular health and safety checks as well as fresh ingredients to put consumer worries at ease.

 

● #4 Gong Cha(薡御贡茶)

The milk tea shop with the most international exposure, Gong Cha started in Taiwan. Since 2006, this premium milk tea shop has become one of the largest in the world with more than 1,500 locations from Hong Kong to South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, USA, Singapore, and other countries.

 

● #5 Yunyang Royal (云仰皇茶)

This brand has also been dubbed the “Hermes of the milk tea industry” because of its exquisite quality and higher price. It is a relatively new player in the milk tea market, only founded in 2016 in Dongguan, and has introduced a range of interesting flavors, including cheese rose Oolong, cheese cream cocoa, or milk salt mountain green tea.

 


 

● #6 China Fruit Time(鲜果时间)

This shop was founded in Beijing in 2007, mainly focused on the take-out beverage market. It was an immediate success, with the franchise chain opening 40 new stores within a year after its founding. The brand mainly focuses on being “fresh, stylish, and healthy” and now has shops all over mainland China.

 

● #7 Utepia(乌茶邦)

Utepia, Wu Cha Bang in Chinese, is a stylish milk tea franchise that is very new and based on the idea of being the “celebrity milk tea” – a very strong brand identity that is all about targeting young generations with a love for classy, traditional products. Although the company is new, some media predict 2018 will be the breakthrough year for this brand.

 

● #8 Happy Lemon(快乐柠檬)

Happy Lemon was founded in Shanghai in 2006, although its owner (Albert Wu) has been active in the tea business since the early 1990s in Taipei. The main company behind this brand, Yummy Town Holdings Corporation, also owns RBT Tea Cafe (仙踪林) and other brands, which have stores in many countries including mainland South Korea, Japan, Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada.

 

● #9 Dakasi(大卡司)

Dakasi is another milk tea shop with Taiwanese roots since 1990, which arrived in mainland China in 1999, where it set up its headquarters in Guangdong. It is a somewhat simple and classic milk tea brand that is especially loved by younger generations.

 

● #10 Attakai Kokoro Tea Shop(恋暖の初茶)

Although it has a Japanese name, this franchise tea shop is actually Chinese and just focuses on the fashionable Japanese style and quality ingredients, which the brand claims all come from Japan, Taiwan, and the US. It distinguishes itself from other brands by offering high-quality products at a relatively low price.

By Ryan Gandolfo and Manya Koetse


Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Ryan Gandolfo is an Economics graduate from Miami who has worked and lived in Shanghai, Baoding, and Guangzhou. He is interested in China's growing role in the global economy and closely follows the development of major Chinese technology firms. 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Steven Wrege

    June 20, 2018 at 7:06 am

    I have have tried most of the shops you have listed but I found that Happy Lemon was the best of them all. RBT is great too if you want a little more food to go with your tea.
    I’m really excited that the are expanding in the United States since I now live there.

  2. Avatar

    LinYun

    November 7, 2018 at 6:31 am

    Hello! Reading milk tea shops in China makes me feel nostalgic, reminding me of the days when I lived there and frequently went to Yi Dian Dian. I was interested to read how milk tea shops are rising in popularity among young consumers. I would be interested to further research how these brands will adjust their marketing strategy to appeal to the younger public. I was surprised to learn that people in China drink more milk tea than coffee. On the other hand, tea is a drink closer to the Chinese culture than coffee which makes marketing to consumers easier. While there are many affordable milk tea shops in China, the ones in the US are much more expensive. The tea shops here position themselves as an exotic product. In the following years, I wonder if their marketing strategy in the US will change to attract a larger consumer base.

  3. Avatar

    Olivier

    November 23, 2020 at 10:58 am

    super interesting article, just share on twitter.

    tea franchise has become a massive trends for consumers and small investors in China.
    Small bets, good profit, it was the investment of the year 2019

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China Brands & Marketing

The Price is Not Right: Corn Controversy Takes over Chinese Social Media

It’s corn! The “6 yuan corn” debate just keeps going.

Manya Koetse

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Recently there have been fierce discussions on Chinese social media about the price of corn after e-commerce platform Oriental Selection (东方甄选) started selling ears of corn for 6 yuan ($0.80) per piece.

The controversy caught the public’s attention when the famous Kuaishou livestreamer Simba (辛巴, real name Xin Youzhi), who has labeled himself as a ‘farmer’s son,’ criticized Oriental Selection for their corn prices.

Founded in 2021, Oriental Selection is an agricultural products e-commerce platform under New Oriental Online. In its company mission statement, Oriental Selection says its intention is to “help farmers” by providing the channels to sell their high-quality agricultural goods to online consumers.

Simba suggested that Oriental Selection was being deceitful by promising to help farmers while selling their corn for a relatively high price. According to Simba, they were just scamming ordinary people by selling an ear of corn that is worth 0.70 yuan ($0.10) for 6 yuan ($0.80), and also not really helping the farmers while taking 40% of their profits.

‘Sales king’ Xin Youzhi, aka Simba, was the one who started the current corn controversy.

During one of the following livestreams, Oriental Selection’s host Dong Yuhui (董宇辉) – who also happens to be a farmer’s son – responded to the remarks and said there was a valid reason for their corn to be priced “on the high side.” Simba was talking about corn in general, including the kind being fed to animals, while this is high-quality corn that is already worth 2 yuan ($0.30) the moment it is harvested.

Despite the explanation, the issue only triggered more discussions on the right price for corn and about the fuzzy structure of the agricultural e-commerce livestreaming business.

Is it really too expensive to sell corn for 6 yuan via livestreaming?

The corn supplier, the Chinese ‘Northeast Peasant Madame’ brand (东北农嫂), is actually selling their own product for 3.6 yuan ($0.50) – is that an honest price? What amount of that price actually goes to the farmers themselves?

‘Northeast Peasant Madame’ brand (东北农嫂).

One person responding to this issue via her Tiktok channel is the young farmer Liu Meina (刘美娜), who explained that Simba’s suggested “0.70 yuan per corn” was simply unrealistic, saying since it does not take the entire production process into account, including maintenance, packaging, transportation, and delivery.

Another factor mentioned by netizens is the entertainment value added to e-commerce by livestreaming channels. Earlier this year, Oriental Selection’s host Dong Yuhui and his colleagues became an online hit for adding an educational component to their livestreaming sessions.

These hosts were actually previously teachers at New Oriental. Facing a crackdown on China’s after-school tutoring, the company ventured into different business industries and let these former teachers go online to sell anything from peaches to shrimp via livestreaming, teaching some English while doing so (read more here). So this additional value of livestream hosts entertaining and educating their viewers should also be taken into account when debating the price of corn. Some call it “Dong Yuhui Premium” (“董宇辉溢价”).

Dong Yuhui (董宇辉) is one of the livestreamers that have turned New Oriental’s e-commerce into a viral hit.

In light of all the online discussions and controversy, netizens discovered that Oriental Selection is currently no longer selling corn (#东方甄选回应下架玉米#), which also became a trending topic on Weibo on September 29.

But the corn controversy does not end here. On September 28, Chinese netizens discovered that corn by the ‘Northeast Peasant Madame’ brand (东北农嫂) was being sold for no less than 8.5 yuan ($1.2) at the Pangdonglai supermarket chain (胖东来), going well beyond the price of Oriental Selection.

Trying to avoid a marketing crisis, the Pangdonglai chain quickly recalled its corn, stating there had been an issue with the supply price that led to its final store price becoming too high. That topic received over 160 million views on Weibo on Friday (#胖东来召回8.5元玉米#).

Behind all these online discussions are consumer frustrations about an untransparent market where the field of agricultural products has become more crowded and with more people taking a share, including retailers, e-commerce platforms, and livestreaming apps. Moreover, they often say they are “helping farmers” while they are actually just making money themselves.

One Weibo user commented: “Currently, ‘helping farmers’ is completely different from the original intention of ‘helping farmers.’ Right now, it’s not about helping farmers anymore, but about helping the companies who have made agricultural products their business.”

“I bought a corn at a street shop today for 4 yuan ($0.55),” one Weibo blogger wrote: “It was big, sweet, and juicy, the quality was good and it was tasty – and people are still making money off of it. So yes, 6 yuan for a corn is certainly too expensive.”

By Manya Koetse 

 

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China Brands & Marketing

How Made-in-China ‘Magical’ Winter Essentials Are Keeping Europeans Warm Amid Energy Crisis

Chinese manufacturers of heating equipment are the “invisible champions” of Europe’s energy crisis.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese companies are profiting from Europe’s energy crisis. Made-in-China electric blankets, electric kettles, sleeping bags, and hot water bottles are flying off the shelves and Chinese factories are working around the clock to meet the demand of European consumers.

“Chinese Electric Blankets Are the Magic Weapon Keeping Europeans Warm This Winter” (#中国电热毯成欧洲人今冬御寒神器#) and “Explosive Sales of Chinese Electric Blankets to Europeans” (#欧洲人买爆中国电热毯#) are among the popular hashtags discussed on Chinese social media this week in light of Europe’s ongoing energy crisis.

Chinese companies are seeing booming sales of winter essentials recently. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe is dealing with an energy crisis. Households and businesses across Europe are feeling the pinch: the shortage of natural gas has led to sky-high prices for heating and electricity. The explosions and subsequent gas leaks that occurred on the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines on September 26 have only made prospects bleaker.

Looking for creative ways to stay warm and reduce energy bills, made-in-China products are in high demand among European consumers, and Chinese factories are scaling up their production to meet the growing demand.

According to Toutiao News, some manufacturers in Dongguan are seeing the highest sales numbers in half a decade; sales volumes have tripled compared to the same period last year. This requires the factory workers to work in shifts of three so the production can continue around the clock.

Electric blankets are especially popular as they are relatively affordable and more cost-effective as they require less electricity to run compared to electric heaters. Chinese electric blankets are generally cheaper than local options.

Chinese media describe Chinese electric blankets as the ‘magical weapons to defend against the cold’ (“御寒神器”).

The word shénqì (神器), meaning ‘magical tool’ or ‘magical weapon’, is often used to refer to products or objects that provide a simple or smart solution to a pressing problem, such as these paint buckets that became a viral hit during Spring festival travel season; this ‘magical’ device to prevent grannies from dancing underneath your window; or this gadget to take revenge on a noisy neighbor.

 

“Now there’s even a joke saying the Yiwu electric blanket sellers are the ones who sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines.”

 

Besides electric blankets, other made-in-China ‘magical weapons’ that have become popular amongst European consumers include electric kettles, wearable sleeping bags, thermal underwear, and hot water bottles.

Electronic knee warmer.

As this topic of Chinese winter products “taking over Europe” recently became a hot topic on Chinese social media, some people commented on how the prices for these products were much higher in Europe than in China.

In Europe, a simple rubber hot water bottle is usually sold for around ten euros ($10) while the exact same products are sold for around five to ten yuan ($0.70-$1.5) in China.

In this way, the European energy crisis turns out to be a lucrative one for Chinese businesses. Some bigger companies also manufacturing electric blankets saw their stock prices rise.

One joke circulating on Chinese social media suggests that Chinese electric blanket sellers from manufacturing cities such as Yiwu are the ones who sabotaged the North Stream pipes.

“I never expected China to get part of the profits,” one popular comment said, with the following comment saying: “Thanks to the silly Europeans for making a contribution to our economy!”

“I heard they’re even looking [to buy] our Chinese birthday candles, they’ve gone mad,” one Weibo user wrote, while others jokingly wrote: “We’re the real winners.”

In light of the run on electric blankets, Chinese netizens also came up with some alternative suggestions to stay warm.

“It would be better if they’d wear long underwear pants,” one commenter suggests, while others say that people could just “make love to generate electricity.”

“Use a hot-water bottle and drink lots of hot water,” some write, while others recommend European consumers to buy more hand warmers.

Hand warmer sold on Taobao for 128 yuan ($18).

“I suggest them to buy our Xinjiang cotton quilts, they are sustainable and you can save on energy,” one Weibo user wrote in reference to last year’s Xinjiang cotton boycott.

One Weibo user drew their own conclusion in light of the current developments: “I think we could safely say that the world can do without Russians, but we’ll always need China.”

By Manya Koetse with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

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