In a society hooked on instant gratification, it’s easy to disregard where our food and drinks come from. But some Portland residents may soon be unable to enjoy one of their favorite beverages due to the disruption of its nearly 8,000-mile journey from Taiwan to Maine.
Cafes across the U.S. are experiencing a shortage of tapioca pearls, also known as “boba,” the chewy bubbles that sit at the bottom of boba tea. As NPR reported earlier this month, the supply chain has been disrupted by a shortage of dock workers and delivery drivers to get shipments from Asia to retailers across America.
A surge in demand for goods from Asia and slowed shipping due to COVID-19 restrictions and port strikes have compounded the problem.
Boba tea, also called bubble tea, comes in a variety of styles and can be made in different ways. Its basic form is a flavored iced tea with boba pearls, served in a covered cup. The plastic lid is pierced with a special, wide straw that allows the boba pearls to be sucked up with the tea.
Michael Bowser, owner of Uncharted Tea at 662 Congress St. in the West End, said while his store has not been “hit just yet” by the shortage because he buys in bulk, he knows it could be coming down the pike.
“We’re due to run out in about a month and then we’ll have to see what happens,” he said.
If Bowser ordered tapioca pearls right now, it would take three months for the shipment to arrive because of the backup, he said. It typically takes a month for the pearls to get from Taiwan to Portland, so the shortage has tacked on an additional two months to the process.
About 80 or 90 percent of Uncharted’s daily sales, Bowser estimated, are bubble tea, although the shop also sells other kinds of teas. For the time being, he said Uncharted has stopped allowing people to order extra boba in their drinks.
According to the Eater food blog, boba tea originated in Taiwan, which still provides most of the world’s supply of pearls. The tapioca starch used to make the bubbles, however, comes from the cassava plant, which is grown in Thailand. The current shortage is especially acute on the U.S. East Coast, Eater reported earlier this month, because of how the supply chain works.
Owners of two other bubble-tea purveyors in downtown Portland – Bubble Maineia on Temple Street and Yordprom Coffee on Congress Street – either declined to discuss the supply situation or didn’t return phone calls. But Brady Whetzel of Foreside Nutrition on Route 1 in Falmouth last week said ordering boba has been “nearly impossible” recently. His store usually orders from Lollicup, which owns a chain of coffee and tea stores in California.
Before the shortage, Eater reported, it typically took Lollicup shipments 35 days to get from California to Texas, which is where the distributor TeaZone has its warehouse and sends out shipments to the Midwest and East Coast.
In addition to being difficult to find, Whetzel said boba is being listed online for five times its usual price. While he said Foreside Nutrition’s sales of the drink are not “insane,” the store sells a “decent amount.”
“We’re not too, too concerned,” Whetzel said, “but we don’t really have a huge supply of it and it’s looking like it’s hard to buy.”
For Bowser, inspiration to open Uncharted in 2019 stemmed from the love he and his girlfriend, Emma, shared for the drink.
That affection grew during the four months Emma lived in California, where Bowser said there is “bubble tea on every corner” and they felt inspired to try a bunch of different shops.
“Then we started in Boston and New York doing boba tours and just going to five or six bubble tea shops at a time,” he said. “We came back one day and were like, let’s open our own bubble tea shop.”
Uncharted prides itself on its fresh tea and milk, Bowser said, and uses machines that allow staff to brew every cup as it’s ordered.
Every bubble tea shop prepares the drink slightly differently, he said, and customers tend to be very loyal to their favorite. But Bowser has been pleasantly surprised, he said, that some customers from cities like Boston and New York, with more bubble tea options, have told him Uncharted serves the best boba they have ever had.
“You can’t judge yourself (by comparing) to other places,” Bowser said. “I’m like, ‘oh this bubble tea is so good.’ I don’t ever say it’s better than ours or worse than ours, it’s just good.”