Boba tea shortage explained: Why the bubble drink's facing tough times

Boba tea drinkers in need of a fix might have to be patient for a few months.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
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Erin Carson
2 min read
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Sorry, US boba tea drinkers, but the near future of your favorite beverage is looking uncertain. The popular drink, which features edible tapioca pearls, is falling victim to shipping delays affecting the little bubbles. Here's what's happening to boba tea and what it means for your next trip to the local boba tea shop.

What's boba tea?

Boba tea, sometimes called bubble tea, is originally from Taiwan. The category can include sweet drinks made with a variety of ingredients, but on a basic level, boba tea blends black or green tea, milk, ice and, of course, the chewy little spheres made from tapioca starch. Sometimes, fruit syrups, coffee, spices or honey (or some combination thereof) get added to the mix. 

Boba tea's popularity has grown over the years across Asia and around the world. One 2020 market research report from Fortune Business Insights put the global market for boba tea at just above $2 billion in 2019, with growth projected to hit about $3.4 billion by 2027. Meanwhile, Yelp declared boba tea the most popular delivery item early in the coronavirus pandemic in several US states, including California, Hawaii and Michigan. 

Why is there a boba tea shortage?

Both the boba balls, which come from Taiwan, and the tapioca starch used to make them, which comes from Thailand, are getting caught up in significant shipping backlogs on both the east and west coasts of the US, according to Marketwatch. The delays are affecting goods beyond boba, including microprocessors and just about anything else shipped from Asia to the US, but they're hitting boba hard, since it relies so heavily on ingredients from Asia.  

The shipping lags can be blamed on a mix of bad weather, pandemic-related logistical issues and increased general demand as consumer spending rebounds, according to MarketWatch and also to Business Insider.   

How long could the shortage last?

In an Instagram post, Boba Guys, a boba tea company with a flagship store in San Francisco, said it could take months for the boba tea supply to get back on track, and shops are already starting to run out.  

"This is an industry-wide shortage," the company wrote. "Some boba shops are already out. Others will run out in the next few weeks. Ninety-nine percent of boba comes from overseas."

How have boba lovers reacted? 

Boba tea lovers lamented the coming hard times on the Boba Guys' Instagram post. 

"Tragic," said one. Wrote another, "The real apocalypse about to start." Another voiced relief at being on the right side of the supply chain: "So glad I am now based in Singapore."

Boba Guys, for its part, urged patience and understanding, saying, "Don't get mad at boba shops for running out of boba."