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Whale Tea: Boba in New Haven


New Haven’s Whale Tea, nestled in a bustling nook of Whitney Avenue, is hard to spot at first unless you know what you’re looking for. Once you do find it though, four stuffed whales smile out at you through the glazed window. Behind them, a line of people fill the store, eager to order. Once entering, we were greeted by the familiar pastel walls and overhanging lights that have decorated the shop since it first opened.

Started in late 2019, New Haven’s Whale Tea has become the most popular Boba shop in the city. Originating in Taiwan, Boba, also called Bubble Tea, is a drink composed of gelatinous tapioca pearls submerged in milk tea. In recent years, this definition has expanded to include any beverage with tapioca pearls. Boba first became popular in Asia in the 1980s before Taiwanese immigrants brought the drink to America in the 90s. The rise of social media helped bring the drink newfound popularity, with a boom of stores opening in the 2010s.

According to May Lin, who owns the New Haven branch of Whale Tea along with nine others around the U.S., boba has long been popular in America. Still, it’s only in recent years that the drink has become popular among more mainstream audiences. While Bubble Tea shops have existed in Chinatowns around the country for decades, today, boba is enjoyed by far more people in the U.S. than ever before.

Most of the items offered at Whale Tea are iced, but some, like the taro and matcha drinks, can be made hot. The store offers a variety of drinks with different levels of sweetness so everyone can enjoy. One can also customize drinks by adding toppings like jelly, popping boba, and the traditional brown sugar tapioca.

Per recommendation, we decided to try the Thai Tea and Whale Crystal with tapioca pearls. As opposed to the Brown Sugar Milk Tea, whose mild, sweet flavor comes from adding brown sugar-submerged tapioca pearls to milk, the Thai Tea had a more complex flavor composition, with light floral and citrus notes. We thought the orange-hued milk tea blended well with the warm boba at the bottom, giving the drink a unique texture and a nuanced, not-too-sweet flavor.

May told us that the Whale Crystal was one of the shop's more “instagrammable” drinks, with a taste that matched its beauty. The drink is composed of three layers: Yellow crystal jelly at the bottom, white coconut milk in the center, and a top layer of blue coloring. We opted to add tapioca pearls too, though this may have made the drink a bit too heavy. Overall, we thought the Whale Crystal lacked a coherent flavor composition, with the fruity jelly, mild coconut milk, and tapioca pearls convoluting each other.

After we tasted the recommended drinks, we decided to try the Milk Foam Strawberry Tea, a slush drink topped with yoghurty whipped foam. We decided to try the strawberry popping boba instead of the typical tapioca pearls because we thought it would complement the fruity flavors of the drink. The popping boba was sweet, with a strong berry flavor. We thought the burst of strawberry flavor paired perfectly with the creamy milk topping, and the refreshing combination would be best on a beautiful spring day.

Whale Tea is just one of the many Boba shops that’s opened in downtown New Haven in the past five years, but it has quickly beat out competitors with its friendly service, flavorful drinks, and rich brown sugar tapioca. It’s hard to categorize exactly what has made Boba so appealing to the masses, but perhaps it’s the nostalgic appeal to some coupled with the novelty that attracts new consumers. Regardless, the drink’s ever-evolving variations suggest it won’t lose the originality that has fueled its recent rise, instead only growing in popularity.



Interview with owner May Lin translated by Georgia Yu



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